It is well known that Pope Benedict XVI loved music, and that Mozart was his favorite composer. He was also an accomplished pianist and there is no doubt that he was familiar with Mozart’s piano sonatas.

There is a saying among pianists that “Mozart’s sonatas are too easy for beginners and too difficult for virtuosos.” Mozart’s piano sonata in C major, pictured at the top of this article, shows a very simple line of notes for each hand. There are none of the crashing chords that one hears in Beethoven’s sonatas. In Mozart, everything is simple, limpid, and therein lies the difficulty.

In this sonata, it is not too difficult to hit the right note at the right time. There is only one note for each hand at any moment. The challenge is to play the notes as they should be played: to play them with the smooth flow of running water, to produce the delicate impearled touch that gives to sound the exquisite perfection of a pearl necklace. To achieve this is the heart-breaking desire of the greatest virtuosos.

Every true artist wants to produce the best he can. The torture – and it is a torture that no true artist would forgo – is to glimpse what that best is and to fail continually to achieve it or even to come close. There is the story of a pianist who gave a concert that was so wonderfully done that, at the end, the audience roared their approval in a standing ovation. A friend of the musician who was in the audience, rushed around backstage to congratulate him. He found the pianist in a state of panic, looking absolutely haggard. “What’s the matter?” asked his friend, “It was magnificent, superb!” “That’s the problem,” said the pianist. “The next time I will have to live up to it.” One may come close to the perfection one desires and know that that perfection remains out of reach.

This is what it means to love an impossible beauty. One realizes that one will only rarely, if ever, come close to producing what one loves. Too easy for beginners, too difficult for virtuosos.

For us Catholics, we live in a similar challenge. It is not too difficult to get to Mass on Sunday, to refrain from murdering anyone, to put a few bills in the poor box or contribute to the St. Vincent de Paul used clothes drive. This is “too easy for beginners.” For those who live the faith more deeply, they will try to attend daily Mass, and take part in regular pilgrimages and help out in a soup kitchen. They will devote themselves to the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. Their knowledge of theology, of Scripture, of the Magisterium will be outstanding and will benefit many.

Are these the virtuosos of the faith? They could be, but they need one thing that we haven’t listed. They need compunction. They are like musicians who have mastered the notes but have not yet fallen in love with the music. They have not yet caught a glimpse of what that music is meant to be. They have not yet discovered the “new commandment”: “Love one another as I have loved you.” I discussed that commandment and its implications in my recent article, “The Whole Christ.” These devout Catholics will certainly have heard the words of this new commandment, they may even know where to find it in Scripture. But they have not realized how deeply, overwhelmingly they are loved by God, for they do not yet ache to love Him in return. They have not realized how much they fall short of loving as they are loved. They do not realize that they are sinners.

The Hebrew word for “sin,” “khata,” means “to fail, to miss the goal.” To fall short of one’s goal, to fail to attain one’s desire of loving as God loves, that is the essence of sin. The virtuoso who knows what the music should sound like and who aches because he cannot produce that result, that musician realizes that he is a sinner. He knows what he loves, he knows that he is called to make what he loves a reality in our desolate world, and he sees that he falls lamentably short of his goal. He knows that he is a sinner, and he aches – not because he feels rejected – but because he falls heartbreakingly short of his goal.

Those who realize that Jesus loves them ache that they cannot love Him in return as they desire. This is a glorious torture. As St. Bernard describes it:

“The love of the Bridegroom, or rather the Bridegroom who is Love, asks in return nothing but faithful love. Let the beloved, then be careful to love in return. Should not a bride love, and above all, Love’s bride? Could it be that Love not be loved?

“Rightly then does she give up all their feelings and give herself wholly to love alone; in giving love back, all she can do is to respond to love. And when she has poured out her whole being in love, what is that in comparison with the unceasing torrent of that original source? Clearly, lover and Love, the soul of man and the Word of God, bride and Bridegroom, creature and Creator do not flow with the same volume; one might as well equate a thirsty man with the fountain.

“What then of the bride’s hope, her aching desire, her passionate love, her confident assurance? Is all this to wilt just because she cannot match stride for stride with her giant, any more than she can vie with honey for sweetness, rival the lamb for gentleness, show herself as white as the lily, burn as bright as the sun, be equal in love with him who is Love?”[1]

We read in the lives of many of the saints that they call themselves the worst of sinners. They denounce themselves for their many and hideous sins. They bewail their faults and offenses. All these protestations are frequently explained as being expressions of Holy Hyperbole. The saints are exaggerating their faults and weaknesses and overstating their resistance to God’s grace.

The saints are doing nothing of the sort. There is no exaggeration or hyperbole in their insistence that they are great sinners. They simply realize very clearly how deeply they are loved and how greatly they have failed to love in return. As one of our Carmelite Nuns has written, “Only love can understand what the refusal to love is.”[2] The saints are the virtuosos who have glimpsed the love they are called to share and who ache because they continually fall short.

St. Bernard put his finger on what distinguishes the lover from the believer. He writes, “Let the beloved, then be careful to love in return.” “Careful” is the key word. One who is careful about something is one who cares about it. He takes care of every aspect of what is close to his heart. He knows it and he cherishes it, and he takes care to do nothing that can harm or even tarnish it. This is no imposition from outside. This is the attentive attention from within to cherish what he treasures and to do whatever he can to embellish and ennoble it.

Those who do not care about something are careless about it. They give it little or no thought and make no effort to enhance its growth. Those believers who are careless of their relationship with God see in themselves little or no evidence of sin. They do not know what it means to be loved by God, so they take no care to love Him in return. They may follow the rules, they may even teach them, but they are not lovers because they do not realize their sinfulness. They are careless in love because they care little for it.

But those who do realize their sinfulness suffer from it. Not from guilt feelings but from longing to attain the unattainable. As the Dominican, Bl. Henry Suso said, “There is no lover who is not also a martyr.”[3] And as St. Bernard said, “What then of the bride’s hope, her aching desire, her passionate love, her confident assurance? Is all this to wilt…? No. It is true that the creature loves less because she is less. But if she loves with her whole being, nothing is lacking where everything is given.”[4]

Those who rejoice to know that they are sinners wear already the crown of glory, for they have seen the unattainable heights of love to which they are called.


[1] St. Bernard, Sermon 83

[2] « En Esprit et en Vérité avec Thérèse d’Avila » de Sr. Madeleine de St. Joseph, p.64

[3] Bl. Henry Suso, O.P., “Life,” chap. IV

[4] St. Bernard, Sermon 83

Image: Adobe Stock. Studio_3321.

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Sr. Gabriela of the Incarnation, O.C.D. (Sr. Gabriela Hicks) was born in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in the Gold Rush country of California, which she remembers as heaven on earth for a child! She lived a number of years in Europe, and then entered the Discalced Carmelite Monastery in Flemington, New Jersey, where she has been a member for forty years. www.flemingtoncarmel.org.

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