Ordinary Saints

All Saints Day 2018

The optimists among us would like to believe there is good in everyone, but let’s be honest – not everyone exhibits the kind of extraordinary holiness and virtue we associate with saints. Not everyone is fearless enough to stand up to those in power or walk among lepers or stand in solidarity with the oppressed.

After someone dies they are often recast in more saintly terms. I always wonder if people said or thought those same kind words that are spoken in eulogies while the person was alive. I know that my own father – a remarkable person in so many ways, but hardly a saint – acquired an aura of saintliness within the family after his death. I would give almost anything to be able to go back in time and express a greater appreciation of him while he was living, but his goodness was of the ordinary kind that isn’t seen without the perspective of time. It was a goodness that provided a safe and loving home, and stayed up late to help with math homework, and drove 500 miles to be with me a month before dying of lung cancer because I was going through a rough patch in my life.

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I could not have been more surprised this past summer when I saw what – or rather, who – stood just above the West Front doors of Westminster Abbey. There, modern day saints are honored in arguably one of the most prominent places in the world. In the very center – Martin Luther King and Oscar Romero (both depicted with children, interestingly). Today, All Saints Day, is their day. A feast day for those exceptional people who have walked among us, whose lives and works changed the world. These were people who helped us see more clearly that God dwells among us and whose faith led them into danger, defiance, and sacrifice.

All Souls Day is tomorrow, November 2, and that is when we have the special intention of remembering those we loved, those ordinary people who happened to be extraordinary to us. No statues, but a liturgical acknowledgement that everyone is important to God and will be welcomed into everlasting life.  All souls, saint or not.

Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush,
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there; I did not die.  (Mary Elizabeth Frye – 1932)

With a Celtic sensibility, these oft-quoted words help us find comfort in ordinary things as we mourn those we cannot see, but who we still long to feel in our lives. Real saints change the world. Ordinary saints change one heart at a time. We need more of both.

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.

 

Civility Revisited

We have to be able to revisit and revise our beliefs as we move through this world, or else we’d get stuck. Something may seem right at 25 or wise at 35 or important at 45 – but may later appear to be a folly of youth! A year ago, as I worked on a project of writing about each of the 30 variations that make up Bach’s Goldberg Variations, I chose to attach the idea of “civility” to one particularly genteel movement.  The music is utterly pleasant and without drama, and that apparently fit my definition of civility at the time.

Yet, I chose a photo to accompany that posting which I had taken in Cape Town several years earlier – a photo of a photo, actually, that showed Archbishop Desmond Tutu standing in front of a photo of Nelson Mandela. I knew even then, I guess, that civility could not be equated with politeness, and certainly not with meekness. Nor can our polite selves serve as a veneer over our inactions or subtle cruelties. With unfailing civility Tutu and Mandela stood up to injustice, but their actions were not meek. Not by a long shot.

It was a Washington Post column several weeks ago, ‘Civility’ vs ‘hysteria’ that woke me up to the fact that injustice is uncivil, and reminded me that confronting wrong requires civil disobedience. Civility is sometimes loud, and sometimes listening. Sometimes tenacious and other times forgiving. It pays attention to those who are hurt as much as it attempts to understand those that do the hurting. It’s so much more than Bach’s sweet 18th Goldberg variation implies. Civility, I’ve learned, requires something more nuanced – and though Bach’s music has plenty of places to look, perhaps I’ll go to Beehoven this time. Not thought of as a model of civility in either his personal or musical style, this elegy was written for someone he undoubtedly loved from afar for many years. Complicated feelings expressed in a civil package of string quartet and chorus:

 

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.

Laugh Out Loud

Some good reasons to laugh – laughter raises our heart rates, increases blood flow and lowers stress, thereby boosting our immune system, lowering blood sugar levels, and yes, even burning calories, though not enough to justify extra chocolate, sadly. And those are just some physical benefits.  What is more psychologically healing than bonding with others around something humorous?

Laughter Clubs, a form of yoga, began developing in the 1990’s and is now a movement with over 8,000 groups of people gathering around the world, usually in the morning in a park, to simply laugh as a form of healing. I haven’t been to one but maybe I’ll start one in my back yard! Apparently the human body cannot differentiate between unfeigned, spontaneous laughter and forced laughter. Whenever I pretend to laugh it always seems to turn into real laughter anyway. Haven’t we all experienced the contagion of uncontrolled laughter that sometimes catches us at the most inopportune moments?  I certainly hope you have!

It seems like the more we’re digitally connected to the rest of the world, the less connected we actually are to our neighbors and family. Could laughter be a common ground that leads to more conversation with those around us? Here are some digitally delivered ideas to get you started.

Funny cat video, with a classical twist

You can’t listen to this notated laughter without laughing. I’m taking bets…

Not-So-Serious-Music

I really hope you click on the links above, and start laughing so loudly that someone hears you and joins you in laughter without even knowing why. Today, October 18, is the feast day for Saint Luke, Evangelist and patron saint of healing on the liturgical calendar. Though we don’t have a lot of control over many things that affect our lives, finding more times to laugh is a wonderful gift we can give ourselves, and one that beckons those around us to an irresistible adventure towards healing.

Hahahahahaha,

Sonya

If you saw my note last week inviting you to a house concert, please know that we have had to postpone the concert.  My musical partner has had a health emergency in her family.  Stay tuned for a new date.

* * * * *

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.

 

 

 

Dead Leaves

Feuilles mortes (Dead Leaves) – Claude Debussy

The short work linked above, from Debussy’s second volume of preludes, has a decidedly straightforward title. For the composer, at the height of his career, but having learned recently that he had cancer, perhaps the desolation he expressed in this music required such a stark title. Though the music can seem blurry, Debussy was a master of clarity in capturing the essence of a feeling or a moment in sound, in this case the leaves of autumn, fallen and desiccated. Harmonically and rhythmically vague, as his music often is, it is music that seems filled with mournful sighs.

Why do we sigh? Whether we do so from frustration or from sadness, there’s one theory that suggests that our sighs serve as a re-set button. In all the ways that breath is life, our sighs overcome the shallow breathing we sometimes fall into and re-energizes our lungs. Maybe it’s a pointed “snap out of it” message from our brain. We can’t really know what was going on in Debussy’s own brain as he composed, but I’m grateful for the “snap out of it” messages that keep me from settling too comfortably into melancholy.

Feuilles mortes had another incarnation that many of you will recognize –

Fueilles mortes-Yves Montand

The translation of “Dead Leaves” sounds somewhat more alluring in French – Feuilles mortes. But then, as I learned this past summer while traveling in France, even the voice of the GPS sounds more alluring when he (there was no way this GPS voice was an “it”, nor a “she”) gave directions.

Les feuilles mortes se ramassent à la pelle, les souvenirs et les regrets aussi.                   Fallen leaves can be picked up by the shovelful, so can memories and regrets.

The American version softens death into merely falling, and changes the title from Dead Leaves to Autumn Leaves, but we often retreat into the prettier words of euphemism in order to save ourselves from confronting the hardest truths.

Of course, as with the lefts and rights of my friend’s French navigation system, allure is part of anything sung by Yves Montand.  He sings here a tender song of nostalgic longing, but it’s impossible to ignore the fact that this was a song written in France in 1945. There is no euphemism for all that is lost in wartime.

Nor for the loss of talent taken too soon:  Eva Cassidy singing Autumn Leaves

Debussy’s dead leaves are disorienting and bleak. Cassidy’s autumn leaves are heartbreaking. I gave myself permission to cry and to live in melancholy for just a bit as I listened, and so should you before you sigh and reset for whatever comes next.

Peace,
Sonya

if you’ve read down this far, you might be interested in a concert I’ll be doing on October 21 – Debussy’s Feuilles mortes is included – let me know if you’d like to attend.  Four Seasons of Caring – a house concert

* * * * *

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.

 

 

 

Can We Talk?

Comedienne Joan Rivers used to ask that during her shows. It was her way of saying that she wanted to be honest with her audience, that it was time to cut through the b***s***.  Unfortunately, plenty of things regularly remind us that, no, actually we don’t seem to be able to talk.

It’s been a fantastic summer for me – with lots of opportunities to catch up with friends and meet new people, to travel and to make music.  As some of you know, I travelled with a small group of singers to a fairly remote part of France this summer, where a parish priest in one of the churches that hosted our concerts was concerned about our program.  He needed confirmation that we would be singing only Christian music.  “Well,” the native French speaker among us reluctantly began, “we will be singing one piece with a Sephardic Jewish text”…”Oh, that is fine,” he told us.  “It is the same God, one God…” and he sped off before she had the chance to tell him that we were also singing a set of pieces based on the Hindu Rig Veda. Many gods in that case, but words that were equally expressive of that same human need to connect with the divine.

More recently, I was talking to someone about an organization of community choirs which she had founded.  She said that there were people in her choirs who refused to sing the word “Jesus.”  The wall between sacred and secular could not be breached it seemed, though I suspect that the wall was actually between a perception of conservative Christianity and everything else.

Can we talk?  Or in my world, can we sing at least about things which are not part of our heritage or our personal piety?

I don’t often quote The Washington Post‘s George Will, but his editorial last week (August 5, 2018) sparked an idea in me that I had long felt to be true. Quoting from a book by Robbert Dijkgraaf, Will wrote about a need to rail against “philistine utiltarianism,” and about the “practicality of unobstructed curiosity that sails against the current of practical considerations.”  In other words, not everything needs to make immediate sense, nor should our ideas and efforts solely follow a narrow path of usefulness. Wonder should not be cheated.

Will was writing specifically about science, but in my own mind I broadened his meaning to include all of those ideas and experiences which add to our understanding of, well, everything. Our institutions, Will writes, should create a “culture of curiosity.” Our institutions – like churches and community organizations, government and universities. We can’t know what will lead someone down the wider path of understanding, but when we tear down walls then conversations happen, and who knows what that might cause us to wonder about.

Fugues are the musical equivalent of conversation, albeit an Italian conversation where everyone is talking at the same time! Just for fun, here is a favorite fugue of mine performed in a way that feels just right for summer: Bach, Fugue in G Minor, BWV 542

Peace,
Sonya

PS  Thank you L.S. for encouraging me to begin writing again! Discipline and inspiration have been lacking of late, but September will bring, I hope, hefty doses of both.

* * * * *

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.

 

 

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

* * * * *

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.