For anyone who decries the grammar-challenging flexibility found at the birth of a new word, consider the word “lovingkindness.” I doubt that Myles Coverdale had any idea what a useful word he was creating in 1535 when he used it for the first time in his translation of the Bible into English. It’s a word which has since proven handy when translating precepts important in Hinduism (Priti) and Buddhism (Mettā), as well as Judaism, where the Hebrew word חסד (chesed) is most often translated into English as lovingkindness. The lovingkindness of God is invoked many times in Coverdale’s Psalms, though it strikes me that the original psalmist assumed that people do not have a comparable ability for that same forgiving, non-judgmental love.
You, O LORD, will not withhold Your compassion from me; Your lovingkindness and Your truth will continually preserve me. – Psalm 40:11
Yet gemilut hasadim is the Jewish mitzvah which commands that one act with lovingkindness, without expectation of anything in return. It is a religious duty that requires one to “love your neighbor as yourself.” We can at least aspire to equal God’s capacity for lovingkindness in our daily interactions.
This melding of love and kindness into a single motivation for our actions implies a gentle attitude of service that does not come easily to many of us, but Bach’s 9th Goldberg Variation led me to think more about what this might look like. Or at least what it might feel like.
I’ve been slowly savoring a beautiful biography about 17th century poet and Anglican priest George Herbert which is called Music at Midnight. Though he never used the word “lovingkindness” in any of his poems as far as I know, he often wrote about such an intention, as in Love (III).
In Herbert’s best known poem (set to music by several composers, incidentally), God welcomes the narrator of the poem, presumably into Heaven, where a feast is offered, though the guest feels unworthy of Love’s hospitality. The poem’s dialogue between Love and the guest leaves the reader uncertain about who is speaking one significant line near the end. Following Love’s question of who is to blame for the guest’s feeling of shame at his unworthiness for such a feast, it is unclear who then says “My dear, then I will serve.”
Is God serving the guest, or the guest serving God? Each, it seems, feels the mitzvah to serve the other with lovingkindness. I’m so glad a new word was born in 1535.
P.S. This Sunday, March 19, I’ll be playing on the annual Bach Marathon at Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church. Come and go as you please, it’s free. Bach Marathon 2017
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 the next 32 weeks I will post one of the variations and write about the word I associated with the music. Sometimes a connection will seem obvious, but more often it will be 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 are to be made in my living room, playing the 9 foot Steinway that was gifted to me on January 5, 2016.