Words of Wisdom from the Carmina Burana

I was at the Kennedy Center last night with friends to hear a performance of the popular cantata Carmina Burana. It was composed by Carl Orff in the mid-1930s and consists of a collection of poems from the Middle Ages (set to music). The poems, mostly of a secular nature, were found in Benediktbeuern Abbey in Bavaria in the early 1800s.

Among the poems is Estuans interius (Seething inside), a lament on the price one pays for indulging the passions (e.g., lust, greed, gluttony). Satisfying our passions can provide temporary gratification, but eventually there is a price to be paid.

Lines from the poem are shown in bold, black italics while my comments are in plain red text.

Burning inwardly with strong anger, in my bitterness I speak to my soul; created out of matter, ashes of the earth, I am like a leaf with which the winds play.

Indulgence often leads to compulsions and addictions that lock us into a cycle of disappointment, bitterness, and self-reproach. This is seldom helpful because it robs us of the very self-regard that could motivate us to focus on our true potential and thereby improve. It is what St. Paul calls worldly sorrow, which is deadly, as opposed to Godly sorrow, which restores us to God’s care (see 2 Cor 7:10).

Left to our unrestrained passions we are blown about like a leaf in the wind.

Whereas it is proper for a wise man to place his foundations on rock, I, in my folly, am like a flowing river, never staying on the same course.

This is another image of the foolishness of intemperance. Our life meanders like a river, and we lose touch with our goal. We’re all over the map, not living as though we know where we are headed; we cannot accomplish earthly goals let alone heavenly ones.

Jesus said, Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it (see Mat 7:24-27).

I am borne along like a ship without a sailor, just as a wandering bird is carried along paths of air.

If we do not subject our passions to our reason, we are easily carried along by worldly forces. Scripture says,

        • Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings (Hebrews 13:8-9).
        • Therefore, beloved, since you already know these things, be on your guard so that you will not be carried away by the error of the lawless and fall from your secure standing (1 Peter 3:17).
        • No longer be infants, tossed about by the waves and carried around by every wind of teaching and by the clever cunning of men in their deceitful scheming (Eph 4:14).

Though secular in source, this poem conforms to the teaching of Scripture: our passions, especially when indulged, make us susceptible to all sorts of foolishness. Our minds become darkened and we are an easy target for even the most ludicrous and deluded teachings and philosophies. Why does this happen? Because Christ is not the captain of our thoughts, and reason is not the pilot of our life; rather, our unmoored passions are at the helm, and the result is a darkened mind and increasing compulsion and addiction.

Chains do not keep me nor does a key; I seek men like myself, and I am joined with rogues.

When the passions are indulged, it becomes harder and harder to resist them. St. Augustine wrote, “For of a forward will, was a lust made; and a lust served, became custom; and custom not resisted, became necessity” (Confessions, 8.5.10).

Sinners tend to seek one another out both for comfort and validation. St. Paul warned, For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear (2 Tim 4:3). When we are both surrounded by and validated by sinners, our passions are further excited. Over time, we keep company with a worse and worse crowd.

I go on the broad way after the manner of youth; and I entangle myself in vice, forgetful of virtue; greedy for pleasure more than for salvation, I, dead in my soul, attend to the needs of my flesh.

Of this “broad way” Jesus said, Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the way that leads to salvation, and only a few find it (Mat 7:13-14). Why is the way to salvation narrow? Because it is the way of the cross and most people do not want to control their passions or say no to sin. As the poem says, most people want momentary pleasure more than eternal salvation; at some point they become so dead in mortal sin that they only attend to the needs of the flesh.

Yes, these are great words of wisdom from the Carmina Burana. Spare us, O Lord, from the slavery of intemperance!

Here is a performance of the sung version (in Latin) of the poem Estuans interius:

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Words of Wisdom from the Carmina Burana

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