Such a Feast

On the Episcopal Church’s liturgical calendar, February 27 is the day which commemorates George Herbert,  17th century Anglican priest and metaphysical poet.

Ambiguity, some would argue, is at the heart of Anglicanism, and it is also the essence of George Herbert’s poetry. Writing in 1928, T.S. Eliot, suggested that Herbert (1593-1633) appeared on the scene at a crucial moment in Anglican history. It was a time of circumnavigation as well as circumspection, a time when people showed a remarkable willingness to question the world around them, along with an increased understanding that Christian life requires both an interior spirituality and the outward and visible signs of music, stained glass, liturgy, and sacraments. Herbert’s faith was private and public, a both/and kind of faith rather than an either/or one.

It occurs to me that, though our world is largely explainable by science now, and God is, for most Episcopalians, not a terrifying, controlling presence in our lives, we still have questions for God, and we’re still uncomfortable with the ambiguous answers we’re given. The intimacy which Herbert established in the conversational tone of his poetry is, I believe, at the root of his appeal to our modern ears. Herbert’s God is approachable and loving.

soul composed of harmonies

That’s how a contemporary described Herbert, who played the lute and set some of his own poems to music, as did Purcell and the Wesley brothers in over forty hymns for the early Methodist hymnal. I would suggest, however, that Herbert’s poetry, for all its ties to the 17th century, in terms of vocabulary and assumptions about God’s place in everyone’s daily life, takes us into mystical, magical places that require a wider harmonic language than would have been used by composers of the Baroque, Classical and even Romantic periods of music history, and so it’s no surprise to me that it is 20th and 21st century composers who have so often found inspiration in Herbert’s texts. His words suggest a firm tonal center, but one that allows for sudden and unexpected excursions into far-flung tonalities.  His poems require richly atmospheric qualities that have been explored by composers, such as Randall Thompson, Ralph Vaughan Williams, John Tavener and many composers dedicated to writing for the Episcopal Church, including the former music director at General Theological Seminary, composer and organist David Hurd in his setting of Love Bade Me Welcome.

In this poem, God (Love) welcomes the narrator of the poem, presumably into Heaven, where a feast is offered, but the guest feels unworthy of Love’s hospitality. The poem is a dialogue, but at one moment it is unclear who speaks next: following Love’s question of who is to blame for the guest’s feeling of shame at his unworthiness, the answer is “My dear, then I will serve”, at which point Love invites the guest to sit down and eat. Is God serving the guest, or the guest serving God?

Perhaps you will be as surprised as I was to learn that the pop singer Madonna quoted George Herbert in her song “Love Tried to Welcome Me.” Love tried to welcome me, but my soul drew back, so goes the refrain.  Strange bedfellows or a sign of the value that Herbert’s 400 year old insights still carry? Feelings of unworthiness have sadly not gone out of fashion.

One of the things we know of Herbert’s life is that he was loved as a child by a vivacious and learned mother in a house filled with music and ideas, and that when he married at age 36, it was a happy union, all too soon followed by his death, at which he was surrounded by loving friends and family.  Love, as a elemental name for God, is so often the subject of Herbert’s poetry. His own love for God was anguished, it never seemed to him to be enough.

At the end of Herbert’s exuberant poem A True Hymn he writes that though our words be scant and “our heart sayes, (sighing to be approved); O, could I love!  And stops: God writeth, Loved.” For all his wondering whether or not his love for God was sufficient, Herbert’s faith assured him that God’s love in return was unhesitating. One musical setting: A True Hymn by Craig Phillips

Herbert’s 1633 poem, The Call, is from his collection called The Temple. It seems to be a calling out to God, rather than a listening for God’s instructions, as we so often define “call.” These are words of invitation, not command. Please come my way, my truth, my life, my light, my feast, my strength, my joy, my love, my heart. Like any good conversation,  perhaps “call” involves listening and talking.

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a Way, as gives us breath:
Such a Truth, as ends all strife:
Such a Life, as killeth death.

Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:
Such a Light, as shows a feast:
Such a Feast, as mends in length:
Such a Strength, as makes his guest.

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
Such a Joy, as none can move:
Such a Love, as none can part:
Such a Heart, as joyes in love.

Could a poem be any more simple and direct? Made almost exclusively out of single-syllable words, it has a clear structure that repeats the three introductory words of each stanza, in case there is any confusion about what God really represents in our lives. Truth, A (Eucharistic) Feast, Love. As much as listening for a call, we might also issue an invitation for these things to come more deeply into our lives. And the greatest of these is love. (I Cor. 13:13).  Is that our call?

As I understand it, the “metaphysical” poets, as a number of 17th century English poets are labeled, sought to describe reality beyond what science had to teach them.  They were particularly interested in illuminating God’s relationship to humans. In The Altar, the appearance of the poem as a physical ALTAR, upon reading describes the human HEART as altar – one made of stone that is “cut” by the power of God, leading to the death of selfish will as a SACRIFICE upon this ALTAR.

A broken ALTAR, Lord, thy servant rears,
Made of a heart, and cemented with teares:
Whose parts are as thy hand did frame;
No workman’s tool hath touched the same.
A HEART alone
Is such a stone,
As nothing but
Thy pow’r doth cut.
Wherefore each part
Of my hard heart
Meets in this frame,
To praise thy name.
That if I chance to hold my peace,
These stones to praise thee may not cease.
O let thy blessed SACRIFICE be mine,
And sanctifie this ALTAR to be thine.

If You Meet George Herbert on the Road, Kill Him must be one of the more unforgettable book titles I’ve ever come across (playing off the title of a pop psychology book that has Buddha in place of George Herbert)Though I haven’t read it, I believe the basic premise is that George Herbert set the bar pretty high for clergy.  He gave tirelessly to his parish of his time and treasure – contributing his own money for the repair and enlargement of the church where he served and ceaselessly riding about his parish on horseback to visit parishioners, conducting several services every day.  He became a parish priest during the last three years of his life, previously serving in Parliament, and by eschewing worldly advancement and becoming instead a country parson he demonstrated a level of humility that few are called to. But he also wore himself out, dying at age 39 in 1633.

Within his poems, George Herbert wrestled publicly with his self-doubts and difficulties, but his faith in a loving God never seemed to waver. The first part of The Windows , heard here in a musical setting by Alan Lewis, contains some of Herbert’s most cherished beliefs – that what we hear with our ears must also be heard by our conscience, and though we are crazie (flawed), God might still shine through us, as a window transmits light.

Peace,
Sonya

* * * * *

This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of new connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

 

Miserere

While I think we should be perfectly comfortable living with some doubts about what we believe, my wish for everyone is that there would be one moment in your life when you knew with all your heart that God existed. One such moment for me was hearing Gregorio Allegri’s setting of Psalm 51, Miserere Mei, Deus for the first time many years ago.  As it happens, this experience was at Winchester Cathedral during a performance that was part of the Southern Cathedrals Festival, so I grant that this was a setting where anyone would be likely to have a musical encounter with God.

Psalm 51 is part of the liturgy for Ash Wednesday, which marks the first day of Lent. Yesterday, at the church where I am currently serving, people received ashes on their foreheads as the choir sang Allegri’s work. My deepest hope is that the music created an incense of sound which enveloped their prayers. Or even better, perhaps it gave them a way to pray without using words.

The music’s three-part structure, alternating repetitions of a homophonic choral setting of the Miserere chant, men’s voices singing traditional plainsong, and a group of four soloists elaborating on the chant, work together to create a hypnotic effect. For me, hearing this piece can be an otherworldly experience, one which just may open a pathway to a deeper connection with God for some.

Perhaps, at this beginning to the season of Lent, you are able to take a few minutes from your day to hear a work of such beauty that surely God cannot be doubted. I particularly like this recording by the British ensemble The Sixteen. The music here communicates an urgency to the psalm’s plea that God have mercy on us, leaving us no room for rest or contentment in being without God.

Thou shalt make me hear of joy and gladness  (Psalm 51:8)

Read the words Psalm 51.   Listen to the music.

This is the kind of creation around which legends are created. Allegri (1582-1652), a singer in the Chapel Choir of Pope Urban VIII, probably composed his most famous work in the 1630’s. It is believed that it was sung exclusively in the Sistine Chapel, with threat of excommunication for anyone who transcribed the piece and sang it elsewhere.  A very young Mozart is said to have written it down after hearing the music once in 1770 while visiting Rome, adding luster to his already obvious genius. He has been credited with making the music available to the rest of the world, though the details are murky around exactly how Allegri’s work escaped from the Vatican. Whatever the circumstances, Mozart was not excommunicated for his part in releasing its sheer beauty for all to enjoy, and I suggest that hearing this music is a way to be in communion with God.

Peace,
Sonya

* * * * *

This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of new connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

Prepositions

I spent a lovely afternoon last week with a new friend, watching her play the sport of curling, a game which might be likened to croquet on ice – beer kegs and Viking costumes (it was Winter Carnival time!) notwithstanding. While I can’t begin to pretend that I understood any of the rules, I enjoyed observing the sociability and obvious good sportsmanship of the players, and I was made to feel very welcome.

Just like the Episcopal church, right? Lots of rules, not always comprehensible, but good sportsmanship is usually on display, and there is, ideally, a genuine sense of welcome extended towards those who don’t necessarily understand all the rules.

Who else cares about rules as much as Episcopalians?  Grammarians! In the great Venn diagram of life, there is probably a fair amount of overlap between the two. Episcopalians follow a calendar with very specific ways of describing the liturgical seasons which shape the year. We are coming to the end of the season after the Epiphany, having celebrated a month ago the Sundays of Christmas.  Following Ash Wednesday on February 14, we’ll find ourselves living in Lent, before moving into the week of Easter and then the Sundays after Easter, finally wrapping up the liturgical year with lots of Sundays after Pentecost, until we return to the Sundays of Advent.

Prepositions are small but mighty. They tell of location in one way or another – in time (before, during), of place (above, between), our state of mind (for, against). These three on our calendar – in, of, after – suggest three ways of experiencing a well-lived life to me: fully in the moment, as part of a community, seeing life through a lens of before and after the experiences which have the capacity to change us.

Rules are an important part of civil society, of living together in our families and communities of every kind. When rules trump love?  Then there’s a problem, and that is when it’s good to remember this advice:

Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.   Pablo Picasso

musical-instruments-1912

Peace,
Sonya

* * * * *

This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of new connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

Architecture

The Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Paul in Minnesota, remarkable for its setting on a hill overlooking the city and for its light-filled interior of arches and dome, has inspiring descriptions of its artwork and architecture posted for visitors to read, and I particularly enjoyed this one:

Just as sound is the language of the musician, so here space becomes the language of the architect.  Here we have symphonies of space and proportion producing on the senses and the soul something of the tonic and inspiring effect of Sacred music.  The moment you enter [a grand space] you feel that you have taken flight from the material world and in the majestic composition of space the soul soars heavenward…Truly such a building sings the glory of God.

6e22061e1e8620413ac3125fcf1688a4--st-pauls-cathedral-minnesota

We have need in our lives for lots of different kinds of spaces. Homes can provide nurture and tranquility. Public spaces can provide communal engagement or, as with libraries and parks, places of retreat. Whether we notice or not, design and architecture do so much to create these places of tranquility or engagement, of inspiring grandeur or nurturing comfort.

My husband and I made a brief trip to Lourdes when we were in France a few years ago. I wanted to see for myself what I had read about in a book by Dr. Esther Sternberg, titled Healing Places: The Science of Place and Well-Being.  In it she explores the science behind why certain places – places as divergent as Lourdes in France and a well-designed and light-filled nursing home in Connecticut – promote healing.  What she writes about are largely things that people have known intuitively for most of human history.  Natural beauty, sunlight, the comfort of those things which connect with our happy memories, and the stimulation of new experiences – all of these things are healing.

Sternberg saw something more than the kitsch and potential for false promises that many believe Lourdes represents. She saw love, compassion and acceptance at work among the healers and those seeking healing. She saw empathy and generosity among strangers, and the healing of hearts and minds, if not always bodies. She noted that the physical terrain around Lourdes served as a way to enter into another world and at the same time to “step from inside yourself to the world you share with others.”

Dr. Sternberg’s TEDx talk in 2013 has some lessons for places that have long been seen as places of healing – our churches. She tells of meeting an executive from Disney who said their goal was to consider every element of Disneyland in their quest to take someone from a place of anxiety and fear to one of hope and happiness.  Every element.  And she finishes with the story of her father, who found the only possible healing place during his internment at a concentration camp to be in his mind as he recited the 23rd Psalm. To consider every element of the present experience, while giving people the tools of our deepest faith connections, are the best guiding principles for any place of worship.

Those great intangibles of sacred sound and space are the beginning. Our wounded and closed hearts can be liberated by beautifully designed physical spaces and music that complements the architecture, but the healing really only continues with the fruitful relationships we have along the way. That’s when a building can sing the glory of God.

Peace,
Sonya

* * * * *

This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of new connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

 

Unison

I began an adventure this past week, moving temporarily to a new city where I know almost no one, working in ways that require me to spend a lot of time alone. Like a lot of introverts, I don’t mind being alone, and I am blessed in never feeling lonely, but that isn’t to say I don’t enjoy all the daily interactions with others that I do have, in rehearsals and meetings and while exploring new places around me.

Author and social researcher Brene Brown has written and spoken, including most recently as the preacher at Washington National Cathedral, about loneliness as the greatest predictor of premature death – more than smoking or obesity.  She was quoting from a British study that’s making the rounds and which has caused the British government to take notice about the health care costs of loneliness.

Church as antidote to loneliness is not a new idea, but to my delight Brown mentioned that singing with people she doesn’t know is one of the best reasons to go to church. She then turned to the Cathedral’s superb choir seated behind the pulpit and, getting a good laugh from everyone, said something to the effect that those particular strangers would do!

YES! a well-trained choir is there to sing with a congregation. Occasionally, at Evensong for example, they are singing on behalf of a congregation, but never instead of, and certainly not despite.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who loved music so much, believed singing in unison was the best way for a community to pray together. The clarity and purity of unison singing – even when it’s somewhat out of tune croaking from the least musically-inclined –  for Bonhoeffer was the most joyful way to illuminate “the Word in its mystery.”

When voices come together in the words of a creed or in the tune and words of a hymn these are things which express the collective wisdom of many across time and place. Some can’t bring themselves to believe parts of the creeds we say, some cannot sing well…and yet these are still unison expressions of a community. Collectively we can believe the creeds, and collectively we can sing as one. Saying corporate prayers and singing in unison become the voice of the Church, not simply a collection of individual voices.

We need to know how to be alone as much as how to be in community, just as we need both self-sufficiency and human interactions in order to survive and to thrive. I believe that harmony and dissonance are as important to music as they are to social discourse, but as a musician I can say that it is training a choir to sing well in unison that is actually one of the hardest things there is to do. And I firmly believe that we are called on a regular basis to practice doing hard things.

Peace,
Sonya

* * * * *

This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of new connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

 

Joy

Where do you find joy, when so much right now seems joyless? The news, and the traffic, and stresses of modern life, together with all of our fears about global warming and warring factions and humanity’s willful cruelties conspire to rob us of joy. We could turn off the news and stick our heads in the sand, but ignorance doesn’t bring joy. We could shut down conversations and proclaim that the other side is wrong, but disconnecting from relationships doesn’t bring joy. We could sweep unpleasantness under the rug and hope no one notices the lumps, but evading truth doesn’t bring joy. So where do we find joy?

A few years ago I came across a story about a 110 year old Holocaust survivor and pianist, Alice Herz-Sommer, who died in 2014, just a few days before a short film about her, The Lady in No. 6, won an Academy Award.  In accepting the Oscar, the film’s director, Malcolm Clarke, said that he was struck by Herz-Sommer’s “extraordinary capacity for joy” and “amazing capacity for forgiveness.”

In the midst of an insanity that would cause most of us to lose hope – a family torn apart, a husband sent to Dachau, she and her son to Theresienstadt – she found joy in music.  “Beethoven is my religion” she said.  “He gives me faith to live and to say to me: Life is wonderful and worthwhile, even when it is difficult.”  She credited Chopin with keeping her alive in the camp, as she pulled upon the reserve of strength which Chopin’s etudes had built within her.

Alice had every reason to lose hope, and instead found every reason to hold onto it.  If her choice to find beauty and joy in a harsh world seems naïve, does feeling damaged, angry or vengeful seem like a better choice?

“It is up to us whether we look at the good or the bad. When you are nice to others, they are nice to you. When you give, you receive.” Simple words from a Jewish Holocaust survivor, so very reminiscent of another Jew, as recorded in the Gospel according to Mark.

“Music is God,” Alice tells us in the film. What is beautiful is of God. She believed in the power of music, and believed that being joyful is a choice which any of us can make. At her darkest hour, she chose to look for beauty, and in finding it where she could, hope was possible.

Where there is hope there can be joy. Leonard Cohen reminded us that “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” I doubt that Alice was blind to the horror around her, and if we are living in times which seem to encourage ignorance, disconnectedness, and evasion of responsibility and truth, look for those cracks where the light gets in and just maybe that is where your joy can be found.

Peace,
Sonya

2014 Oscar winning short documentary

* * * * *

This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of new connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.

 

Barley

Barley is probably my favorite grain – and not because it’s a key ingredient in beer and whiskey, neither of which I like at all. I frequently use this ancient grain in soups and stews, but even so, I was very surprised to have the word “barley” stare me in the face not once, but twice one afternoon recently. What are the chances that the word “barley” comes into your life twice in the same day, in ways completely unrelated to the actual food?

While reading an article about the hymns of Richard Wayne Dirksen before writing my post last week, I learned the story behind Dirksen’s hymn tune BARLEY.  It’s not found in The Hymnal 1982 unfortunately, but I had come across the tune in a choral hymn setting titled Praise the Spirit in Creation several years ago, and I find the tune as hearty and satisfying as its grain namesake. Dirksen named it, I learned, after Mr. Barley, the Great Cat. The Dirksens had adopted a bedraggled foundling one rainy evening, and several years later when the composer was pondering a name for a new tune he had written for the American Guild of Organist’s 1992 convention, he came back to his computer to find that Barley had stood on the keyboard as he crossed to the window for some squirrel-watching.  No, the cat hadn’t typed the word “barley.”  You didn’t really think that, did you? But Mr. Dirksen saw a feline equivalent in the six “k’s” that he found on his computer screen and promptly named his new tune with six other letters – BARLEY.  You can hear the choirs of Washington National Cathedral singing it here.

Barley made a second appearance when a neighbor emailed to share that she was completely taken with a new album, one by an artist I probably would not have heard about otherwise, Lizz Wright. Hers is an earthy, honest voice, more than worthy of the earthy, honest grain she sings about in the song “Barley,” found on her new album, Grace.  It’s a text that speaks of resilience, strength, and moving forward.

The wind that shakes the barley will not shake me
The fire that takes the kindling will not take me
And the rain that floods the valley will not drown me
The hawk that stoops the sparrow will not strike me
The dark before the dawn breaks will not bind me
The wind that shakes the barley will not shake me
Like my mama told me, this I know when I see.

The musical layers of barley. Who knew?

Peace,
Sonya

* * * * *

This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of new connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much for which we can be grateful.