My husband and I saw a film last Friday that might have changed my life. I saw it again on Saturday by myself, and I’d see it yet again because I found it so moving. It is a documentary about New York-based pianist Seymour Bernstein, a film directed by the actor Ethan Hawke called Seymour: An Introduction. You might have seen a couple of rave reviews in The Washington Post this past weekend, or have been lucky enough to see the film already and hear a question and answer session with the pianist himself following the screening (as I was, both times I saw it).
Bernstein doles out wisdom in heaping spoonfuls, and his wisdom goes from how the two-note slurs in a Beethoven Sonata can be played more beautifully to the purpose of being creative. He talks about being a whole person only because he has learned to integrate his creative self into his daily life. He leads a simple life that is wonderfully focused on being kind and caring enough to want to bring out the best in his music and in people.
It’s common to think that creativity is simply spurred by life’s experiences and that the great joys or tragedies in a life inform the art. Of course those life experiences contribute, but in dispelling the idea that great art only comes from suffering, Bernstein makes the case for practice – the detailed hard work of really focusing, with great care, on the preparation of something – being the thing that informs one’s art. While I do believe something very special can happen “in the moment” (known as the workings of the Holy Spirit in my line of work), that doesn’t happen without preparation. Thinking of practice as preparation for life, though, was a revelation to me. One of the young, extraordinarily talented students in the film talks about learning to really listen to people, because he has learned to listen so carefully to the music he is practicing.
What does any of this have to do with Maundy Thursday? I suggest that the way we live our lives is our greatest work of art, our greatest creation. Jesus’ mandate to his disciples at their last meal together and celebrated this day of Holy Week, was to love one another as he had loved them. He gave them a course for their lives, and sent them out to create lives of teaching and working and loving.
But first they had to get beyond their fears. The fear that night was of Jesus’ imminent arrest and fears for their own safety. The film about Seymour Bernstein came about because the 88 year old pianist happened to get seated next to Ethan Hawke at a dinner party, where the two discussed their own fears. Bernstein’s stage fright that had led him to give up concertizing 37 years earlier, and Hawke’s fear that his life as an actor is meaningless. From those fears came a life devoted to teaching and believing in the power of creativity, and this brilliant film.
We are all creating our lives each day, ideally practicing the details that make us more loving, more compassionate, and ultimately, more whole. And if you need inspiration, you could begin by seeing this documentary, and by following the final days of Jesus’ life, his death and resurrection, in the services of the Triduum.