No mud, no lotus. This thought from the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh should be the mantra for anyone going through difficult times. God doesn’t purposely put us in the mud, I don’t think, but if we can observe, or even encourage, the lotus to emerge from it, then we have the possibility of happiness. I don’t really expect you to make the connection, but this is the thought that came to me while practicing the accompaniment for a piece that is new to me, Gerald Finzi’s Lo, the full, final sacrifice. It’s a substantial and difficult piece for choir and organ, and the accompaniment was feeling muddy indeed.
I am still not quite hearing all of the beauty and power that this work promises, but there is one moment – one beautiful lotus – that emerged from the mud as I practiced. It comes near the end, a few measures of such poignancy which spoke to me as clearly as any words could about longing for God’s presence. Beginning around 10:40 in this recording by the Truro Cathedral Choir, at the words come away (sweetly reminiscent, incidentally or not, of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night song, “Come away death”):
Finzi was avowedly agnostic and a pacifist. Working in 1946, he set words of St. Thomas Aquinas, as translated by metaphysical poet Richard Crashaw (text is below). With its references to a ransomed Isaac (from the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac) and the mythical assertion that pelicans would wound themselves in order to feed their own blood to their young, it is a text rich with the imagery of sacrifice. You might well imagine the potency of these images of sacrifice in post-war England. Traditional images of Christ as Paschal Lamb and Shepherd and simple references to food, bread and manna are woven together as well in this ode to the mystery of the Eucharist. Agnostic? Really?
Two different things came to mind as I was practicing the Finzi this week. They might be related, but you would have to peek into my brain to help me figure out how. First, I heard a sermon this past Sunday which asked us to more fully embrace the line from The Lord’s Prayer, our daily bread. The preacher spoke about our daily need for new bread. Yesterday’s bread may have been good for that time, but might not be nourishing us anymore. It was a suggestion to live more comfortably with change. Second, I was reminded how a great ending can fully redeem even a mediocre story. Lo, the full, final sacrifice is a story of goodness coming from pain, of triumph over bleakness (though this is far from being a mediocre work, even if still muddy for me). It is the power of those final few minutes, I think, which redeems the jagged dissonances of the first 10 minutes.
A glorious ending. Is that the connection? Living comfortably with change so that we can move towards a glorious ending? Living in the mud sometimes, so that the beauty of the lotus is all the more eloquent?
Lo, the full, final Sacrifice
On which all figures fix’t their eyes.
The ransomed Isaac, and his ram;
The Manna, and the Paschal Lamb.
Jesu Master, just and true!
Our Food, and faithful Shepherd too!
O let that love which thus makes thee
Mix with our low Mortality,
Lift our lean Souls, and set us up
Convictors of thine own full cup,
Coheirs of Saints. That so all may
Drink the same wine; and the same Way.
Nor change the Pasture, but the Place
To feed of Thee in thine own Face.
O dear Memorial of that Death
Which lives still, and allows us breath!
Rich, Royal food! Bountiful Bread!
Whose use denies us to the dead!
Live ever Bread of loves and be
My life, my soul, my surer self to me.
Help Lord, my Faith, my Hope increase;
And fill my portion in thy peace.
Give love for life; nor let my days
Grow, but in new powers to thy name and praise.
Rise, Royal Sion! rise and sing
Thy soul’s kind shepherd, thy heart’s King.
Stretch all thy powers; call if you can
Harps of heaven to hands of man.
This sovereign subject sits above
The best ambition of thy love.
Lo the Bread of Life, this day’s
Triumphant Text provokes thy praise.
The living and life-giving bread,
To the great Twelve distributed
When Life, himself, at point to die
Of love, was his own Legacy.
O soft self-wounding Pelican!
Whose breast weeps Balm for wounded man.
All this way bend thy benign flood
To a bleeding Heart that gasps for blood.
That blood, whose least drops sovereign be
To wash my worlds of sins from me.
Come love! Come Lord! and that long day
For which I languish, come away.
When this dry soul those eyes shall see,
And drink the unseal’d source of thee.
When Glory’s sun faith’s shades shall chase,
And for thy veil give me thy Face. Amen.
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Where I’ll be:
July 31 and August 14 – organist/choir director for the 10:00 am and 5:00 pm services at St. John’s (Norwood), 6701 Wisconsin Avenue, Chevy Chase, Maryland. Maybe you’d like to come and sing with the Summer Choir there? 9:15 a.m. rehearsal.
July 31-August 12 – organist for Christ Church, Glendale (Ohio) during their residency at Canterbury Cathedral (U.K.)
September 4 through November 20 – organist/choir director at Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church (1 Chevy Chase Circle, Washington, D.C.) while their Music Director is on sabbatical.
Save the Date: Friday, September 9 at 7:30 p.m., Let’s Dance! Music for Two Pianos (no actual dancing is involved). Sophia Vastek and Sonya Sutton play music of Manual Infante, Witold Lutoslawski, Benjamin Britten and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Contact me directly if you would like to receive an invitation.
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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 new connections between old and new.
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