Repent

A harsh word if ever there was one.  It immediately calls to mind images of puritanical finger-pointing and condemnatory, angry crowds flinging stones at a cowering figure.

Yet, the word is sung again and again in one of the gentlest pieces I know. It’s part of a set of three short pieces which I’ll be singing with a small group on their tour in France this month: We Will Walk with Mother and Mourn.  Repent…repent…repent we quietly coax the listener.

We will walk with Mother and mourn. We will walk with Mother and weep. We will bow in solemn prayer with her While Zion’s children sleep.

And through their sacred dwellings We will march and cry repent.
In low humiliationCome low, low and repent.

The song comes from the mid-19th century Shaker tradition, and Mother would have been the Shakers’ founder, Ann Lee. Walking, dancing, marching – moving in any form was integral to their worship. To bow and to bend, as the famous Shaker hymn Simple Gifts goes. Despite their humility, pacifism and creativity, the Shakers viewed the world outside their insulated community as dangerous and humankind as essentially wicked. Needless to say, their fearfulness and fundamentalism did not pave the way for a successful future.

Yet, seeing our own community – i.e. our country – demonstrate its inability to welcome the stranger in obedience to twisted laws, and to read in The Washington Post Magazine this past Sunday about a church that divided families in obedience to a twisted theology, makes me wonder about the need for a collective, communal repentance. We all share in the guilt for our part in creating a society where these kinds of things happen.

Repent…repent…repent for the lack of love that causes such cruelty. We’ve seen images showing the cost of dividing families on our southern border and how the poor once again pay the costs of having hope for something better. In the article linked above about a Virginia evangelical church, the members who left the church talk about doing so at great costs as well. Loss of community, loss of faith, and forced separation from family members who choose to stay. The costs of cruelty are great indeed.

To see humankind as essentially wicked would be a loss for me though. It’s a world view which couldn’t save the Shakers, nor will it save that Virginia church, nor a country that labels whole groups of people as undesirables of one sort or another. Repent ..repent …repent for extremes of thought which divide and exclude .

My mind turned to Dietrich Bonhoeffer during a walk earlier this week. His path from pacifism to martyrdom is a powerful story, and caused him to resist the evil that led one German pastor to proclaim: “Christ has come to us through Adolph Hitler.” Bonhoeffer’s pacifist beliefs turned more radical during the 1930’s and he wrote The Cost of Discipleship in 1937.  He paid the costs of that discipleship with his life in a Nazi death camp in April of 1945.

Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without requiring repentance… Communion without confession. … Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross..  (D. Bonhoeffer)

We’ve all heard the saying that “freedom is not free.” It seems there are costs for so much that we hold dear, and the trick is to know what exactly it is we should value. Safety or truth? Truth or peace? Peace or community? Community or integrity? Integrity or kindness? Kindness or …. it’s like a huge game of rock, paper, scissors.

And so we are led, as we always are, back to our highest calling – to love. Repent… repent… repent then for all those times when our actions were motivated by anything other than love and caused us to be divided from a sense of solidarity with all of humankind.

Peace,
Sonya

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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 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.

 

 

Passivity

Well, being passive is not a quality we often aspire to or one that we admire in others, is it. We are a culture of opinions and strongly-held views, of action and moving forward. Those do all seem like good things, and yet…

Summer seems like a perfect time to lie fallow, to purposely be idle with the intention of increasing our fruitfulness later, and yet…

These are not times for passivity. Political and social trends require more engagement, more caring and more interaction, not less. By making a case for passivity I’m not suggesting that we be  uncaring, disinterested, or disengaged. Nor that we cultivate a “wait and see” mentality or turn a blind eye to life’s woes. I just see some merit in stepping back, giving ourselves a chance to observe the world from a little distance. Because a lot can happen when we’re passive, and a good place to start practicing is by simply sleeping.

Through most of human history we likely had two periods of sleep – with a quiet time in between.  Clocks and electricity changed our relationship to natural light and darkness, and industrialization channeled us into a more regimented existence, but some have always found their greatest creativity in the middle of the night.  A time that author Marilynne Robinson calls her “benevolent insomnia”

That world between sleeping and waking has a name – hypnagogia – and it’s been studied and appreciated for the affect it can have on creativity. Hypnagogia has been described as the shortest path our subconscious has for its communication with our conscious self. I find some freedom in knowing that I can let go of a problem and passively allow my subconscious to work things out while I sleep! How many times have you woken up with the answer, or just the right words, or a clear plan? I read somewhere recently that it’s not such a bad idea to go to bed angry. Sleeping on it can be a useful tool after all.

If we can fend off anxiety about not being asleep, we might enjoy the stillness and lack of distraction during a period of hypnagogia. It could be a time when we feel a stronger connection to our dreams and find more meaning in them. Often the solutions to problems come to us when we are sleeping because of a phenomenon that cognitive scientists call “pattern recognition.”  Our dreaming or hypnagogic mind finds links between new information and memories, because the brain is in a relaxed enough state to create new connections and neural pathways. Pattern recognition, by the way, is how we remember faces, learn language, and appreciate music. All of those things require memories from previous experiences coupled with the ability to absorb new information.

The monastic practice of rising in the middle of the night to pray during the sacred office known as “vigils” surely evolved in some part from this biological need we seem to have once had for a first and second sleep. I have to believe that monks came to those Vigils in a drowsy, yet receptive, state of passivity which helped them to absorb the readings and prayers even more.

Contemplatives talk about “resting in God,” a kind of letting go that is difficult for a lot of people, but have you ever had the experience of getting out of the middle of a problem and having the solution only then become apparent? Passivity, like sleep, has a purpose, and when we’re quiet perhaps that’s when the Holy Spirit finds its way to us more easily, speaking to us and sharpening our sight.

The word liminal is used by anthropologists to describe that time during a rite of passage when someone is on the threshold of change. People of faith use it to describe sacred places where they have an experience of God. These are in-between places, like our periods of hypnagogia. What seems clear to me is that when we are in such a place, we can’t actually do anything to hurry things along. These are times of opening ourselves up to something – whether it be change, understanding, peace, or whatever it is that we actually need.

I rest my case in support of (short-term) passivity. Read a book review in The Washington Post that happens to agree with this idea.

There is a surprising amount of music online related to the word “liminal” – bands and songs and an Icelandic festival even.  This is one I particularly enjoyed: Liminal

Peace,
Sonya

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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 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Arc of Common Sense is Long

but it bends towards prosperity.      (bet you didn’t see that coming!)

Threats of global devastation should have been enough, but the common sense of developing renewable energy sources didn’t appeal to a lot of people until the short-term economics did. With fossil fuels costing more to produce than wind or solar energy within the next couple of years, if not already, and given a fair chance by government regulators, common sense around energy use just might prevail.

But common sense thinking around the economic boost that the arts can provide to a local economy? Americans for the Arts, a nearly 60-year old non-profit organization has put business minds to work conducting studies that say yes. Creating jobs, generating commerce, driving tourism – really? I’ve never put common sense, job creation, and the arts into the same sentence before. We’re not talking about blockbuster Broadway productions or Van Gogh exhibits either.

I spent a few days this week in upstate New York, where I attended a concert in one old mill town which has re-created itself by repurposing a factory space into a sprawling modern art museum. I watched the sunset in another old mill town seated next to a stunning (more so than the sunset even) performing arts center that describes itself as a place where the arts, sciences, and technology meet under one roof and breathe the same air. That one is located on the campus of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, but it’s intended as a resource for the entire region, with a concert hall for the 21st century that looks like a floating wooden planet encased in glass.

Those are both relatively new investments in their respective communities. In contrast, there is a church nearby where old wealth had been invested over 100 years ago into building a glorious Tiffany-designed church. Today it stands as one of the best preserved examples of Tiffany’s artistry. The deep blues in the glass and graceful wooden carvings were built and conserved as a gift for future generations, as surely as these more recent arts centers have been. The arts are clearly a vital presence in these small towns that industry had once built and then jilted. Like cracks in the pavement where plants have pushed through, reminding us that nature always wins, this spirit of creativity seems to infuse the old and forgotten with tendrils of new energy.

Whether the conservation of the art in a once-flourishing church, or the emergence of creative communities in these previously forsaken mill towns, art and music feel like a life force that has broken through the cracks of abandonment. As any weekend gardener knows, vegetation coming up through cracks in your pavement is persistent. You can pour weed killer on those green shoots, but they’ll return somewhere else or in a stronger form that will resist your poison next time. Creativity can’t be ignored (though I’m not liking my weed analogy at this point!). More important to our bottom-line-loving world, the arts can apparently help drive an economic engine that brings new life to old places, even as they make hearts sing and bodies move and minds ponder.

For generations some people have put their wealth into art that would last far beyond them – as patrons of painters and musicians, and as builders of cathedrals and museums. How beautiful to see communities reawakening and reimagining art-filled futures in ways that just happen to make a lot of economic sense too.

Peace,
Sonya

PS   After posting this I saw an article about the impact that funding for the arts by the state of Minnesota has had on the quality of life – and the economy – of small towns there. Read it here.

PPS   The news keeps coming…an article about how the arts have helped Greece emerge from its financial disfunction:  Athens Rising-The New York Times.  One quote in particular spoke to me:  “I think everybody became more creative after the crisis, more cooperative,” he said.  Can our own country emerge from its own crisis of closed minds and cold hearts with more creativity and cooperation?  And here’s another: Measurable Benefits of the Arts

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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 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.

 

 

Passionate Moderation

My husband and I met the Queen of England in 2008. That alone is a wonderful thing, but the story of how it happened is actually my favorite part of the whole experience. We were at the Lambeth Conference on a summer day, one that was quite hot, even for Americans.  We had been invited to afternoon tea at Buckingham Palace, along with a few thousand other people.  The Queen has a lovely back yard, really more of a park, but the sultry weather had caused everyone to gather on the sidelines under the shade of trees and tea tents, lined up on the right and left of an enormous, sunny expanse of lawn. We decided to take a stroll, and went straight up the middle of this open area, far from any others.  A man in a morning suit appeared, really it seemed out of nowhere, and asked if we wanted to meet the Queen. That was an easy question to answer, and we had our brief brush with royalty.

The point of my story is that we were walking in the middle, alone in that expanse of lawn, with the thousands of other guests far away on either side. I think that made us an easy target for the man in the morning suit on his mission of rounding up a few commoners for the Queen’s reception line. In this case, the middle ground served us well!

I really value the via media, that middle way that builds consensus and sees both sides, even if it can seem like a namby-pamby approach to life. We’re often told to follow our passions – to feel strongly about those things we believe to be true – or false. Yet, in this world of winners and losers, black and white, right and wrong, good and bad…all that clear division of thought cries out for a via media else we forget how to talk to each other at all.

And so, I am choosing to cultivate a passion for moderation. Now, if everyone did that things would get boring pretty fast, but there’s probably no danger of a huge growth in passionate moderation anytime soon. I do believe that we really need people who bring their zeal to both conservative and liberal thinking, though that doesn’t include extremists who distort the truth and abandon motivations of love. Unfortunately, the extremes on either side are sort of like those people standing on either side of the Queen’s lawn – they just might be missing something to be found in the middle.

With all of the attention lately paid to the Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, I found it particularly interesting that a May 26th Washington Post article ended an article about Bishop Curry with this line:  I think the story these days is not the rise of the religious left, but the religious middle. If Bishop Curry is any guide, it’s possible for that middle ground to be full of passion’s energy.

Peace,
Sonya

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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 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.

 

More Resilience

As for most of you, it’s been a remarkably busy time for me too, so I updated a post from last summer in part as a time-saving measure, but also because the word “resilience” keeps coming up for me in various ways.  As a reminder? An aspiration? What’s clear is that resiliency is a place where failure means something.

Did you know that the word “resilience” has the same roots as “sally,” as in “sally forth?”  To leap forward, to burst out, or to simply set forth, one foot at a time.

These are stormy days and the quality of resilience is one that I find more desirable than ever. And I do mean literally stormy – hard rains and harsh winds that cause trees to bend and plants to bow down under the weight of the rain. But, of course, I also speak metaphorically.

Carya

I am again collaborating with friends to put together a Carya Ensemble event – this time a tour in France for 8 voices and harp –  and I think resiliency is an idea that will always be attached, for me anyway, to my Carya projects. To remind some of you, or illuminate for others: Carya is a botanical genus which includes hickory and pecan trees, and resiliency is a particular characteristic of this grouping of plant life. To be resilient implies, as it does for trees, a flexibility to adapt to our environment and the ability of our wounds to heal in ways that build on the strength of scar tissue.

Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” provided a vehicle for me to think about the many personal qualities, including resilience, which contribute to building a happy life.  

Goldberg Variations, 28 (Resilience)

The trills in this variation are relentless, providing an inner energy that fuels sparks of detached eighth notes. Pianist and blogger Jeremy Denk, in his NPR musings on The Goldberg Variations, uses words like “zany” and “manic” to describe this music, and conjures up the image of Mickey Mouse’s endless supply of brooms in Fantasia’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” section. Chaos ensues, but Mickey survives, resilient as always.

I don’t recommend manic behavior as a survival technique, but there’s something to the idea that, as with those trills, we should just keep moving – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Getting unstuck from unhealthy behaviors, shutting down conversations, grudges, toxic “friends,” or dulling places in our lives all seem like good first steps on the path towards resilience.

Throughout your life there were times when you knew you couldn’t go on. And yet you did, one step at a time.

Peace,
Sonya


I’ve lived with Bach’s Goldberg Variations for a long time now. More than half my lifetime in fact. I would pull them out periodically, feeling that I was revisiting an old friend, but a friend who always has something new to share. I began thinking about Bach and mindfulness last year in a way that meant something to me. Each variation became linked in my mind with a word and that word became something like the “intention” that yoga students are sometimes asked to set for their practice. A word to mediate on and to help draw more from within. For 32 weeks in 2017 I posted one of the variations and wrote about the word I associated with the music. Sometimes a connection was obvious, but more often was unexplainable. It became apparent as I worked on this project that I thought about things which I wanted to cultivate in myself, ways of being in the world that were positive. All of the recordings were made in my living room, playing the 9 foot Steinway that was given to me on January 5, 2016.

 

 

Follow Me

“Just follow me,” I said to a choir who would be singing for Evensong at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Minneapolis this past winter.  We were visitors, and I had asked how the choir should process in, so I confidently set off into the nave and up the side aisle as instructed. Halfway back I noted that it was strangely silent behind me.  I glanced quickly over my shoulder and worst fears were realized. The choir had shot straight into the crossing and were already up in the choir stalls. I made an abrupt – yet dignified – turn and joined them, testily whispering as I passed the sopranos that I hoped the choir would follow me better in singing than in processing. The Cathedral’s Dean made his lonely way up the center aisle to begin the service and the choir sang beautifully, so my story has a happy ending, but I would have preferred not to so ably demonstrate the idea that you cannot lead if no one is following.

Errant choirs notwithstanding, within the church we are supposed to think of ourselves as followers.  A noble goal, of course, when we’re talking about following the teachings of Jesus.  In various parts of our lives we’re sometimes called to be a leader though.  Certainly as a parent, in our work places, as part of a community organization, or in a crisis, there are times, no matter how introverted, humble, or inept we think we are, when we will be called to lead.

The mechanics, psychology and effects of leadership are very interesting to me, and considering that part of my work is leading various groups to do something – it isn’t surprising that an article titled “What Do Conductors Do?” would catch my eye. If you’ve never sung or played an instrument under a conductor it would be easy to wonder what’s actually going on up there. All that arm waving, sometimes to the point of histrionics – what does it all mean? What effect does that gesturing really have on the music itself? The article’s author studied the work of esteemed conductor Bernard Haitink in a master class setting, and saw up close just how much effect a great conductor does have on the music.

What Do Conductors Do?

The observation made in the article which was closest to my heart was not about the intellect that a conductor brings to the work – though there’s no denying that a thorough understanding of the music and its history are very important when guiding tens or hundreds of people towards an understanding of what you’re trying to do with a piece of music. For me, it was the role of “dance”, for lack of a better word, involved in conducting. How much can you show with your body language?  Too much talk gets in the way of the “deeply primitive and instinctual” way that a great conductor – or leader of any kind – has in herding a group of people to “breathe, move and feel as one.  It’s a gift:  you’ve either got it or you haven’t,” so states the article’s author.

I’m finally getting to a book that a friend gave me for Christmas, Maestros and Their Music: The Art and Alchemy of Conducting by John Mauceri. Lots of great anecdotes and insights into the personalities and styles of famous conductors. I highly recommend it if you’re at all interested in understanding more about what might be going on up there on stage. In the opening chapter, a brief history of the role of conductors reminds us that it was only as music became more complicated in the mid-19th century, with larger ensembles and more freedom of phrasing and tempo, that orchestral and choral conductors became obligatory. (There’s a big difference between orchestral and choral conductors, by the way, but that’s a subject for another day.)  Before then, simple cues came from someone within the performing ensemble.

Just for fun, in this centenary year celebrating Leonard Bernstein, here is a clip demonstrating a rather unusual conducting technique – something you could only get away with if you are Leonard Bernstein conducting the Vienna Philharmonic: L.B. “conducting”

Words matter, and I should probably have used a few more in explaining to a choir how to walk into a Cathedral for Evensong… but moving people into new and meaningful directions requires something more than words. Courage of conviction perhaps? Clarity of vision? Walking the walk? I don’t know, but I find the questions and search for answers continually fascinating.

Peace,
Sonya

More?  Here is one of my favorite TED talks: Lead like the great conductors

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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 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.

Wakener of the Songbirds

A group of singers I’m working with is preparing a program to sing on tour in France this summer, and one of the presenters of a concert series at a cathedral in southern France saw our program and expressed some concern about it not being entirely “religious.”  We hadn’t intended to put together a program of sacred music, but in fact we had done exactly that…just not music that drew exclusively from Christian texts.

The music in question is Gustav Holst’s Choral Hymns from the Rig-Veda. My group is learning the four movements of Part III of this early 20th century work: Hymn to the Dawn, Hymn to the Waters, Hymn to Vena, and Hymn of the Travellers. It’s not surprising that Holst was so deeply interested in Indian culture.  He was composing, after all, during the central years of the British Raj, and not so many years after Swami Vivekananda had been warmly received in the West with his teachings on Hinduism and interfaith connections, as well introducing Westerners to the practice of yoga.

The name Rig Veda  comes from the Sanskrit words for “praise” and “knowledge.”  I like that.  It seems to me that the goal for any religious tradition should include those two aspects of human needs – the need to acknowledge something larger than ourselves and our desire to try to understand those things which can’t always be explained by science.

Rig Veda, Part III – Gustav Holst

Based on sacred Hindu texts and translated from the original Sanskrit by the British composer himself, Holst drew inspiration from Indian classical music for much of the music he wrote in the first years of the 20th century.  An interest in astrology continued throughout his life and played some role in his most famous work, The Planets. Hinduism’s sacred texts in the Rig Veda  include more than 1,000 poems, composed between 1500 and 1000 B.C. and Holst sets 14 of these for mixed chorus, men’s chorus, orchestra, and in Part III, for women’s voices with harp.

Universal themes abound. In Hymn to the Waters the words speak of the cleansing waters flowing from the firmament, healing all in earth.  In Hymn to Vena we sing of a newborn infant who appears on the summit of creation, proclaiming the glory of our common Father, a healing light rejoicing in radiant splendor. Much like the “O Antiphons” of the medieval Christian church, various names are used here for God: Ensign of the Eternal, Mighty One, Wonder-worker, and my favorite, Wakener of the Songbirds. 

Peace,
Sonya

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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 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.