Christmas Music: The Rare and the Beautiful

A medieval Christmas song, a Bach chorale, and a folk rendition by Odetta

I do love Christmas music ’round this time of year, but sometimes it’s hard to find the good stuff. I’ve collected a ton of Christmas music over the years, and done some mixes for my friends. Please enjoy these three Nativity carols you won’t hear in elevators:

They are:

1. “Puer natus in Bethlehem in hoc anno” from In Natali Domini — Medieval Christmas Songs, the Niederaltaicher Scholaren, Konrad Ruhland, dir.

2. “Puer natus in Bethlehem” (J.S. Bach) from Orgelbüchlein (Little Organ Book), Chorus of the Gedächtniskirche, Stuttgart, Helmuth Rilling.

3. “Ain’t That A-Rockin” sung by Odetta, from Christmas Spirituals (1960 Vanguard LP)

— The medieval Christmas song is very lively! I’m a bit puzzled by the line “Fresh tomato far from Venus” as well as the reference to Pokemon, but then I don’t live in the 15th century…

— The Bach piece is really special to me. The chorale sung in Latin has a beautiful drawn-out ‘alleluia’ which seems to move and evolve though so many emotions (like a colour wheel). To me it conveys a sense of dying, or falling into an abyss of uncertainty and doubt, then (miraculously) emerging on a new plateau. (So I didn’t die after all… How about that!) It seems to get at that ineffable quality of joy which is so deep as to resemble sadness and carries with it the gravity of the journey taken. The recording is one which combines the organ preludes with the matching chorales, so you get a very churchlike experience. It took me a long time before I could hear the chorale melody embedded in long notes in the upper voice of the organ prelude. I first got that album when I was 15 or 16, lost it in a fire, and later replaced it. At the time I had no definite spiritual beliefs, but often surrounded myself with music and art that pointed to some deeper meaning in life.

— As for Odetta singing “Ain’t That A-Rockin’,” I absolutely love this short treat and have listened to it in times of intense grief as well as joy. Without sounding pretentiously zenlike (I hope), I would say it has a certain quality of suchness. Her album Christmas Spirituals was released in 1960 on Vanguard records. If seeking it out, try and get the original not the later re-recording.

M E R R Y   C H R I S T M A S ! ! !

Picasso and the Circus, Part 2

Connecting Picasso and the Circus with Sri Chinmoy, Elena Day, Jim Freund, Genevieve Valentine, and The Outer Limits

In Part 1, I embedded a video of Picasso and the Circus, where a little girl named Elena views Picassos in the museum, with cutaways to a modern-day Parisian circus. I closed by saying this makes me think of many things…

I sometimes listen to Hour of the Wolf, the sci-fi/fantasy radio programme started by the late Margot Adler, and hosted lo these many years by Jim Freund. I remember Jim saying that he loved the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis as a child, but when he reread them in adulthood the magic seemed to be gone.

Aha! I thought to myself. The books are the same, but what has changed? Consciousness has changed! This ties in very nicely with Picasso, who famously said that “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” Unless we consciously try to cultivate childlike qualities, those qualities become lost to us — and with them so much beauty and joy! Continue reading

Picasso and the Circus, Part 1

A child’s introduction to Picasso

Have you ever wanted a way to show children that art can be interesting and fun? Today just might be your lucky (Elena) day!

Picasso and the Circus is a short film produced in 1981 by the National Gallery of Art. A little girl named Elena with an intelligent, artistic face is exploring the museum, spinning ’round and staring up at the rare and gigantic:

She begins eyeing early Picasso paintings and drawings depicting circus performers. Her museum explorations are intercut with footage of a modern day Parisian troupe (the Cirque Gruss) — replete with trapeze artists, equine riders, harlequins, and costumery that’s often little changed from eighty years earlier.

Even though I’m rumoured to be an adult, I love this film because it makes me feel like I’m wandering through a museum, seeing things through a child’s eyes of curiosity and wonder. It makes me think of many things — but more on that in Part 2. For now, Shut up and eat your Picasso… 😉

The Truman Show and Finding Reliable Spiritual Sources


Have you ever felt a spiritual longing, but felt like you didn’t know how to proceed and everyone you asked seemed to be misdirecting you? This post tackles the problem of how to locate reliable spiritual sources, and how to get beyond sources which are unreliable. Peter Weir’s film The Truman Show is used as a metaphor, and art critic Rosalind Krauss helps us delve into the postmodern dilemma in which we seem to be confronted by a wall of illusory images. To find reliable spiritual sources may entail questioning the nature of reality itself! Not everything which is popular is true, and some types of information can be discounted because they’re the product of excessive populism, vested interests, or incompetent operators. Continue reading

Self-Interest, Self-Giving, Low Ethics, and High Ethics

What is the relationship between self-interest, self-giving, low ethics, and high ethics? To better understand these concepts, we’ll take the help of an interview with Mother Teresa, a video of the Dalai Lama, and an animation by R.O Blechman. Also a video of Mother Teresa receiving the U Thant Peace Award from Sri Chinmoy.

I previously quoted Chinese Taoist Hua-Ching Ni, who writes:

Before one is able to receive spiritual enlightenment, one must be absolutely virtuous, practice the principle of appropriateness, and display one’s innate moral qualities of selflessness and responsibleness. If one does not have the foundation of true and pure ethics, any spiritual teaching will be without influence on the reality of one’s life. Spiritual knowledge and techniques alone may create mental stimulation, but are merely another form of LSD or mental opiate, and have nothing to do with the truth of spirit and the reality of life.

Hua-Ching Ni, Entering The Tao

I find this passage helpful in understanding the problem of people whose ethics are quite low, but who spend much of their time attacking spiritual teachers, hoping to extinguish their light, or at least to discourage the public from accepting and benefiting from that light. This is not merely unethical, but often reflects an underlying cruelty, arrogance, and self-will.

Not all attacks on bona fide spiritual teachers come from avowed secularists. In some cases, the attacks are structured as “spirituality lite” vs. “spirituality proper.” Sometimes the attackers correspond to Hua-Ching Ni’s description above — people who just want to use some limited technique to achieve a temporary “high” without actually living the spiritual life; or people whose sense of spirituality is a sort of airheaded social butterfly concept. They like to gossip on Facebook about spiritual topics, but resent any implication that the spiritual quest might entail commitment, self-sacrifice, and loyalty — at least if one hopes to achieve anything meaningful and lasting. Continue reading

A Shibboleth Is Not A Speech Impediment, Part 2

Definitions can be limiting. A quick survey of the word “shibboleth” yields:

“a custom, principle, or belief distinguishing a particular class or group of people, especially a long-standing one regarded as outmoded or no longer important.” (Google)

“a word or custom whose variations in pronunciation or style can be used to differentiate members of ingroups from those of outgroups.” (Wikipedia)

“Shibboleth is among the world’s most widely deployed federated identity solutions, connecting users to applications both within and between organizations.” (

“Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right.” (Judges 12:6)

Now let’s talk turkey…

As this Thanksgiving-themed clip from The West Wing (s02e08) shows, a shibboleth can have a richer meaning than cursory definitions would indicate: Continue reading

Hate Propaganda and Anti-Cult Ideology — What’s Wrong Here?

In her “Hate On The Net,” sociologist Evelyn Kallen points out that hate propaganda frequently employs “invalidation myths” meant to “dehumanize” the targets “and thus to legitimize violation of their human rights.” Such myths may present a contrarian, inversionist, or caricaturized view of the targeted persons in order to achieve the objective of vilifying them. This is true whether the target is an individual or group; or the shamed individual may then be used as a stand-in or “avatar” for the group itself. Continue reading