External Beauty

The value of external beauty?  Well, that’s a twist on the conventional wisdom which prizes inner beauty over the superficial kind. Yet, a member of the so-called “cloud of witnesses” within the Episcopal Church, Phillips Brooks, famously preached on “the sacramental value of external beauty,” and because he was commemorated on the liturgical calendar yesterday I decided to learn more.

Whether or not Phillips Brooks is a familiar name, you know his contribution to hymnody. What follows will read like a sixth grade book report, I’m afraid, but bear with me. Perhaps Brooks has something more to say to us today than an annual rendition of his O Little Town of Bethlehem would lead us to believe.

Briefly Bishop of Massachusetts until his death at 57 in 1893, Brooks is most clearly associated with Trinity Church, Boston, where he is immortalized with no less than five statues, including a particularly cophillips_brooks_by_augustus_saint-gaudens,_trinity_church,_bostonntroversial one by Augustus Saint-Gaudens (known to Washingtonians for his “Grief” statue in Rock Creek Cemetery). During his years of ministry Brooks was known for his opposition to slavery, preaching eloquently upon the death of Abraham Lincoln, and demonstrating a strong lifelong commitment to the cause of African-Americans, with anecdotal evidence of an underground ministry to Boston’s African-American population. He was credited by one biographer of Martin Luther King with having had a major impact on King’s oratory.

Brooks was clearly deeply affected by his travels to the Holy Land, his eyes and heart opened, and so many of his ideas still have resonance in these times:

  1. He inspired the architects and artists who built Trinity Church, Boston to create what one writer called “an American Hagia Sophia”, with a free-standing altar and no choir stalls to detract from the central altar (these things were changed not long after his death), and originally without a pulpit. The purity of the Early Church, real or imagined, was his ideal.
  2. His travels informed not only his architectural ideas, but also his liturgical ones.  He championed congregational singing, together with “thrilling music” and “thrilling incense”.  He believed that worship was more than prayer and praise, and also included preaching, architecture and music. His Puritanical roots were not long behind him and these were radical ideas in 19th century New England.  His first sermon at Trinity was on “the sacramental value of external beauty,” suggesting that God would rather tempt us with beauty than hold us in bondage with fear.
  3. His thinking carried a sense of ecumenism that was emerging in late 19th century America. He was open to the teachings of Catholics, Jews and Muslims, once pointing to similarities between Unitarians and Islam, and writing, “I should dishonor God if I did not believe that Islam has done good”.
  4. His was a voice of reason in the discord between science and religion, saying that “Faith would not suffer, but gain, by every discovery of truth from every science”.  He believed that the “nature of a continually active, formative force is in line with Christianity.”
  5. He was a strong proponent of congregational involvement in liturgy, not to “deny the priesthood of the clergy, but to assert the priesthood of all.”

Dozens of quotes from his writings are easily found at BrainyQuote.com and they are inspirational, words truly to live by. Some of my favorites were:

“Skepticism offers no satisfactory substitute for what it disbelieves.”

Be patient and understanding. Life is too short to be vengeful or malicious.

Christianity helps us face the music, even when we don’t like the tune.

No man or woman can be strong, gentle, pure, and good without the world being better for it, and without someone being helped and comforted by the very existence of that goodness.

More than 100 years after Brooks’ death, with nothing except written words to remind us of his thoughts, someone like me spent hours reading and thinking about a 19th century preacher, and found wisdom in his words. The external beauty he desired in his surroundings was a clear path to the inner beauty our world actually needs. For me, it’s not such a big stretch to Marie Kondo preaching in our current cultural climate about the value of decluttering, teaching the world that to tidy your space is to transform your life.

Peace,

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MLK/We the People

MLK

Sleep, sleep tonight, and may your dreams be realized…

There is plenty of evidence pointing to all the ways that the human body uses sleep as a time for healing and making needed adjustments in our brains and bodies. Until we evolve past a need to sleep it remains a necessary part of life, and during our sleep we dream. And when we dream we process ideas that we might have only vaguely been aware of during our wakefulness.

This coming Monday, when our country formally remembers the work of Martin Luther King, the word “dream” takes on even more significance.  His was a dream that came from being fully awake in a segregated and gaze-averting world, but the song MLK, performed by the group U2, expresses a hope that King’s dream will be realized during his “sleep” (as one euphemism for death goes). Healing, along with dreaming, happens while we sleep, and healing seems more integral than ever to realizing King’s dream.

If the thundercloud passes rain, so let it rain down on him, the U2 song continues. Thunderclouds seem ominous, charged with electricity and brooding power. The rains and winds they bring can be dramatic, even frighteningly violent – but ultimately the air is clearer, the dead branches are blown out of the trees, and the rains bring new life. Dreams and thunderclouds…those both feel like potent symbols of this country’s continuing struggles with racial understanding.

We the people

I had the good fortune of visiting the then new memorial dedicated to Martin Luther King on a beautiful summer evening several years ago. It was crowded, but deep thoughts were clearly moving behind reverent faces and faraway looks. It was my privilege to be there with my mother-in-law, an African-American woman who is King’s exact contemporary, and I only wished that her ninety-nine year old mother could have joined us as well.  I had seen pictures and read about the memorial, knew about the controversies that surrounded its creation, and wondered if it could possibly hope to represent the magnitude of what King gave to this country, all the while thinking that as a work of art it was hardly breaking any new ground aesthetically, and in fact it looked rather Stalinesque to me in the photos I had seen.

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How good to be surprised. The quotes are strong and (sadly) as appropriate to our own time as four or five decades ago.  I knew there had been criticism by Maya Angelou, among others, of the expression on King’s face, but we studied it for a long time and what we saw was a man who didn’t like what he was seeing, gazing, as he is, at the conflicted slave-owner Thomas Jefferson across the Tidal Basin. Or perhaps it’s an expression of discomfort, knowing he was being called to do dangerous work that required his reluctant response, found in words of the prophet Isaiah…here am I, send me.

Arms crossed, expression stern, King seems poised to do something about the inequities around him. We slowly read each of the quotes carved into the monument’s stones and mourned the lack of such soaring rhetoric in our own time.

On the way out a park ranger heard our conversation and stopped to ask what we thought of the memorial, and we asked him in turn what his impressions were. He told us that when he had first seen the memorial, weeks before it opened, he wasn’t very impressed. As soon as it opened to the public he realized that the memorial had been missing something. People.  People walking and thinking and quietly conversing, teaching their children and asking their elders – that’s what made the memorial a success in his opinion.

From the mountain of despair, a stone of hope, so the memorial is called.  We the people, so begins the U.S. Constitution. The people, each of us one stone of hope. Each of us called to be a dreamer.

Peace,

* * * * *

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.

Light

Faith is the bird that feels the light when the dawn is still dark.
(Rabindrinath Tagore)

It’s not too soon to be grateful that days are already lengthening little by little. Even amid the cloudy days of winter we can sense light returning. The morning light appears a little earlier, the afternoon sun stays just a bit longer, and some primal instinct tells us the earth is slowly awakening. The liturgical calendar plants us in the season of Epiphany and gives us themes of light, beginning with the Magi following the light of a star, and ending two months from now with Jesus’ Transfiguration (celebrated on the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday), when the “Light of the world” gave his followers a glimpse of his divine nature, becoming a radiant, light-filled sign of God’s presence while conversing with Moses and Elijah on a mountain.

Light implies movement as well as brightness, moving through time with the speed of light, and when we are light-hearted and light on our feet it suggests buoyancy. Then, too, light is integral to perceptions of color, including defining people as light-skinned. I took some liberty, incidentally, this past Sunday with the beautiful motet of Peter Warlock, Bethlehem Down.  Its gorgeous text refers to Mary’s “white arms,” but we corrected that likely historical inaccuracy to sing about her “warm” arms instead.

But I digress! The Song of Simeon, a canticle taken from the Gospel of Luke which is sung or read as part of the evening office, takes us back to the light of sun and stars. These are the grateful words of an old man upon seeing the infant Jesus and understanding what he holds in his arms:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; To be a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

aert_de_gelder_-_het_loflied_van_simeon

Three ways to be illuminated by Simeon’s words:

Artistically, the ability to capture light, as seen in this 18th century depiction by Aert de Gelder of Simeon with Mary and Jesus, is often considered the mark of a great painter.

It is more difficult to capture light in sound.  Composers might find it in shimmering string sounds, or the clarity of straight-toned high voices, but often a text has to do some of the work.  The final line of Simeon’s prayer  – a light to lighten the Gentiles –  has inspired many, many composers to soar in musical arcs of light. In honor of this week’s celebration of Christmas by the Orthodox Church…Rachmaninoff’s setting of Simeon’s words in the Nunc Dimities from his Vespers:

And finally, Simeon’s story takes poetic flight in T. S. Eliot’s A Song for Simeon: “my life is light,” Eliot writes here.

We can find beauty in any artistic expression of Simeon’s cry, a light to lighten the Gentiles, but sometimes life is more shadow than light and it is those times when we can hold on to Tagore’s words above, believing that light is possible even before it appears.

Ultimately the greatest beauty is found in our own ability to embody light, to be radiant, buoyant expressions of love moving through this world.

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.

 

 

Song of the Universal

This is a time of year when we think most about universal themes – things like hope and peace and those things which bring people together, like singing carols or gathering around a meal.  The “feel good” quality of a “happy holidays!” greeting might seem cheesy and superficial, but maybe it’s also a tiny step towards living into those universal songs of hope and peace.

This is a piece I’ve gotten to live with these past few months as one of the choirs I work with learned it for their concerts a few weeks ago. Norwegian composer Ola Gjeillo found his inspiration in the words of American poet Walt Whitman, and wrote about his chosen text: “I love the unabashed optimism, exuberance and his unwavering confidence in our deeper humanity – all through the prism of a big, warm, beating heart.”

Gjeillo sets part of Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”:

COME, said the Muse,

Sing me a song no poet yet has chanted, Sing me the Universal.

In this broad Earth of ours,
Amid the measureless grossness and the slag, Enclosed and safe within its central heart, Nestles the seed Perfection.

By every life a share, or more or less,
None born but it is born—conceal’d or unconceal’d, the seed is waiting.

Give me, O God, to sing that thought!
Give me—give him or her I love, this quenchless faith
In Thy ensemble. Whatever else withheld, withhold not from us, Belief in plan of Thee enclosed in Time and Space;
Health, peace, salvation universal.

All, all for Immortality!
Love, like the light, silently wrapping all!
Nature’s amelioration blessing all!
The blossoms, fruits of ages—orchards divine and certain; Forms, objects, growths, humanities, to spiritual Images ripening.

So wonderful to think about the possibility of the “seed Perfection” nestling with the “grossness and slag,” but one of the poem’s lines, not set by Gjeillo, is the anthem I want to sing in 2019:

“Only the good is universal.”

What a leap of faith, amidst so much pain and turmoil in our world, to think of misery as fleeting and that which is good as what will last.

Maybe it seems cheesy and superficial to approach the new year with the exuberance and confidence in our deeper humanity that Gjeillo and Whitman want us to feel, but it is the only step I know how to take towards living into the universal songs of hope and peace that our world needs to be singing.

Happy New Year!

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.

No Pressure

It’s difficult to convey sarcasm in writing without naming it directly, so let me be clear about the title – it’s meant to imply a bit of eye-rolling.  It is what we say when we know we’ve asked the impossible of someone…maybe something like, “you were born to save mankind.  No pressure.”

The choir at Church of the Epiphany is singing, among many other things, a setting of the Wexford Carol on Christmas Eve. It’s an old Irish carol that originated in County Wexford and the final stanza reads:

With thankful heart and joyful mind the shepherds went the babe to find, And as God’s angel had foretold they did our Saviour Christ behold. Within a manger he was laid and by his side the virgin maid attending on the Lord of Life, who came on earth to end all strife.

Who came on earth to end all strife?  No pressure.

I’ve written before about the Dorothy Parker poem A Prayer for a New Mother, which expresses a wish that Mary just enjoy her little baby, without any knowledge of what is to come for her son. Could she just appreciate the simple and wonderful things about him? His gentleness, his smile, his beautiful eyes? Maybe she had her own plans for him, ones that didn’t entail ending all strife.

My own son was born the night the first war in the Persian Gulf began. If you remember the build up through late 1990, it was a very tense time, and our country began a massive air offensive on the night of January 17, 1991 just as I was going into labor.  As it happens, I would be having my baby at a military hospital, so that night when we drove up to the gate and the guard was told why we were there, he exclaimed, “tonight?  you’re having a baby tonight!?”

Apparently it was an inconvenient time. I wonder if Mary felt something similar when she and Joseph trudged into Bethlehem looking for shelter. As I labored, the entire hospital staff was gathered around large television screens watching a war unfold. It clearly was an inconvenient time to have a baby. I know that we’re not supposed to make deals with God, but in those hours of labor bargaining with God seemed like a very good idea indeed. And this was my bargain – make this pain end and let me have a healthy baby, and I promise that he will be a peacemaker.

No pressure, my son.

As with our children, it probably isn’t a good idea to pressure God to be what we want. Make that a terrible idea actually. My father, a Hindu, reminded us regularly that people were happiest when they wanted what they already have. In the same way, we show our love more completely when we love people just as they are. And instead of expecting God to do what we want, we might do well to instead see God in all those things large and small that change the world for the better. Which is the only place we’ll find God anyway.

A peaceful Christmas wish for us all.

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.

Myths and Truths

de_grey_hours_f-57-r_st-_nicholasDecember 6 is the day on the church’s calendar when St. Nicholas is celebrated. The myths around this saint from Myra (in present day Turkey) are many.  The bags of gold that he tossed into one home so that the daughters would have dowries and not be sold into prostitution become the origin of the gift-giving tradition we now have at this time of year. He is considered the patron saint of children because one story has Nicholas resurrecting three boys who had been slaughtered during a time of famine and were being prepared to be eaten. And he is credited with saving a ship full of sailors in a storm-tossed sea by calming the waters.  These are tales told in many cultures, and of course all relate directly to Christian theology.  Are they true?  Does it matter?

Where do mystery and reason meet?  One might argue, and certainly Joseph Campbell did so in his book and television series “The Power of Myth,” that they meet in theology, as both mystery and reason attempt, in their own ways, to express truth.  Where does myth end and truth begin?  Do we have to know?  There are many truths that can’t be confined to those things we perceive with our five senses and personally, I have never been hobbled by a need for certainty. I enjoy the universalizing process that any story can lead us through.

The danger of myths that feed our misperceptions about race, about various threats to our safety from vaccines to immigrants…well, that’s a topic for another day. There is a big difference between things we absolutely know to be true (but aren’t), and those things we know aren’t really true, but which we acknowledge still have something to teach us. A very provocative TED Talk takes on this very topic, if you are interested.

What matters, it seems to me, are the universal truths that the story of St. Nicholas expresses – the value of generosity, of helping those in need, and maybe most important at this time of year, being the calm during a storm (the quiet voice during a family argument perhaps? A peaceful presence among harried shoppers or co-workers?). These are truths we all could incorporate into our lives.

Close your eyes and return to your early childhood. Was there anything more wonderful than anticipating the return of that greatest of all myths, St. Nicholas in the guise of a gift-bearing Santa Claus? The evolution of our adult happiness hinges on turning that early eagerness for the gifts of things into a mature appreciation for the gifts of spirit – friendship, time, kindness, and, of course, music.

A gift for you then on this St. Nicholas Day – music by Estonian composer Arvo Part, which includes this text in the third part of his choral work Triodion:Ode III:

O Holy Saint Nicolas, Pray unto God for Us A rule of faith and a model of meekness, a teacher of abstinence hath the reality shewn thee unto thy flock; therewithal hast thou acquired: by humility – greatness, by poverty – riches; O Father hierarch Nicolas, intercede before Christ our God that our souls may be saved.

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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.

Veni Emmanuel

In the Christian church, the new year – the liturgical year – begins this coming Sunday with a four week journey known as Advent. It’s often described as a time of waiting, watching, and hoping, and a season when we might try to quiet our minds in the midst of the chaos around us, but living in a state of anticipation and also with a quiet mind seem to be at odds with each other. Somehow we have to accept that Advent is a season of duality. A time of joy and penance, beginnings and end times, the comfort of God’s word and the discomfort of the prophets’ messages, images of light and darkness.

I love the hymns of Advent, and no hymn better captures the two sides of Advent than O come, o come Emmanuel, sometimes known by its Latin name, Veni emmanuel. Its text is built on the ancient words of the “O Antiphons” which were sung before and after the chanting of Mary’s Magnificat in the seven days preceding Christmas Eve (hence the dates you see before each verse). Mourning in lonely exile (vs 1), we’re asked in the refrain to “Rejoice!”

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, the first line of the Magnificat, is Mary’s brave response to God’s plan for her to have a child, one who will be both human and divine.

oemmanuel

Each verse of Veni Emmanuel (#56 in The Hymnal 1982) begins with a salutation, in the form of a name for God, and then an invitation for each of these aspects of God to come into our lives. An invitation is meaningless, of course, unless the door has been left open, so don’t sing this beautiful hymn unless your heart is open to change!

O Sapienta (v. 2)  O come, wisdom, and show us a path towards knowledge

O Adonai (v. 3) O come, Lord of might, and with an outstretched arm, save us

O Radix Jesse (v. 4)  O come, branch of Jesse’s tree, and be a sign of God’s love

O Clavis David  (v. 5)  O come, Key of David, and open the gates of life and set us free

O Oriens (v. 6)   O come, Radiant Light, and shine on those who sit in darkness

O Rex gentium (v. 7)   O come, King of all people, and end our sad divisions

O Emmanuel  (vss 1 and 8)  O come, Emmanuel, and dwell among us

In the complexity of this life, may we discover truth somewhere in the middle of all the dichotomies of Advent. Anticipation and peacefulness. Questions and answers. Joy and penance. Comfort and discomfort. And in all of that, may it be a journey towards light and rebirth, a triumph of dreams and hopes over our knowledge of life’s dark places.

Veni Emmanuel,

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.