Poets of the Cross

Many describe the Welsh poet and priest R.S. Thomas as a “poet of the cross,” and his poems often include the stark image of an empty cross – or an “untenanted” one, in his words.  His untenanted cross no longer bears death, however, but witnesses life.

There is nothing kind or warm about a cross.  Its power lies in its austerity, like the angular harshness of R.S. Thomas’ poetry, or the Four Motets for a Time of Penitence by Francis Poulenc. Both were reacting to the bleakness of their surrounding landscapes – one evoking the forbidding, lonely existence of Welsh farmers, and the other writing his motets soon after the death of his dearest friend and during the ugliness of European war in the late 1930’s. With an economy of texture and a sense of desperation, Poulenc (uncharacteristically so) and Thomas (inseparably so) cause us to confront those difficult places where the silent cross stands, untenanted and unflinching, waiting until we are ready to receive its strength.

To one kneeling down no word came,
Only the wind’s song, saddening the lips
Of the grave saints, rigid in glass;
Or the dry whisper of unseen wings,
Bats not angels, in the high roof.

Was he balked by silence? He kneeled long
And saw love in a dark crown
Of thorns blazing, and a winter tree
Golden with fruit of a man’s body.  – R.S. Thomas, In a Country Church

Timor et tremor by Francis Poulenc

Fear and trembling have come upon me and darkness has fallen
upon me. Have pity on me, Lord, have pity; because in thee my
soul trusts. Hear, O God, my prayer, because thou art my refuge
and my strong helper. Lord, I have called on thee, I will not
be confounded. (words from the Psalms)

The strange fruit in the poem’s final line is as unsettling as Poulenc’s music in this first of his Lenten motets. Both express passion – a word which we use so freely for our hobbies and loves, but which finds its roots in the Latin for suffering. I feel an emptiness in this music and in these words.  The kind of emptiness that is cleansing.  The kind of emptiness that invites rebirth.

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 new 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.

Undone by Donne

One of my favorite hymns to teach young choristers in years past has been Hymn 140 in The Hymnal 1982, and I urge you to take a few minutes to listen to this gorgeous recording. With its plaintive 17th century tune and text by John Donne it was seemingly far beyond their years, and yet somehow always seemed to reach them in that deeper place where children have vast stores of wisdom. It’s also fun to teach them about the play on words in the last line:

Wilt thou forgive that sin, where I begun,
Which is my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive those sins through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done, for I have more.

Donne (1573-1631) had secretly married Ann More against her family’s wishes, causing his dismissal and years of poverty until he became employable again as an Anglican priest in 1615.  “When thou hast Donne, thou hast not Donne, for I have More”. A Hymn to God the Father by John Donne

Ann had died some years before Donne wrote this text, but despite its apparent gloom the text actually conveys a sense of assurance, most clearly in verse 3, while playing on their names once again:

that at my death thy Son shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore.
And having done that, thou hast done, I fear no more.

Donne is quoted as saying: “And, O the power of church-music! that harmony added to this Hymn has raised the affections of my heart, and quickened my graces of zeal and gratitude.”

Might we all, including our children, be so moved by music in the church.

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I’m not sure if the sign is still there, but several years ago when I made a quick visit to Milwaukee I came through airport security to see this:

Recombobulation Area

I don’t know about you, but I’m discombobulated on a regular basis, and the opportunity to pull myself back together after shedding various parts of my attire for airport security was very welcome. In fact, I bet we might all welcome the chance to recombobulate ourselves now and then. Maybe you already have such a place. A yoga class,  hiking, a cup of tea and a book. Could church be one of those places to recombobulate? It’s a place, after all, that asks you to temporarily step away from your normal life, where discombobulation is perhaps not an unusual state of being.  Church, at its best, is a place to sing together, confront difficult issues from moral and theological perspectives, and experience the beauty of God through all five senses. It is a place, ideally, where you are accepted and loved as you are, and given some tools to help you become better than you are now.

I often imagine what someone, completely new to church, might experience during a service. While singing a hymn with an archaic text such as Donne’s for Hymn 140,  I wonder what my unchurched visitor is thinking. Does it seem stuffy and off-putting?  A conversation in my head goes something like this:

“Why do you say thee and thou in church still?” she might ask?

“Because there is a power in being connected by language and thought to past generations of Anglicans/Episcopalians, and because we aren’t afraid to create an experience which takes us away from day to day life and helps us glimpse a more orderly world where ideas and emotions are beautifully and carefully expressed,” I might answer.

Wilt thou forgive that sin?  “I’m not really comfortable talking about sin. It’s such a harsh word, and makes me feel judged.”

“I get that. Words have power, but one of the things I particularly enjoy is looking under the surface for deeper meanings. There’s no basis, as far as I know, for my idea that “sin” is related to the word sine, which is Latin for “without,” but being without a moral compass is my working definition of sin.”

“But where’s the joy and exuberance that unleashes the power of the Holy Spirit in us?” she would then wonder.

And I could reply, “Well, it is Lent, and expressions of joy and exuberance become muted, so that we can then feel their full effects on Easter.  For Episcopalians, it’s almost always about balance.”

Maybe church in general, and Lent in particular, can be times to recombobulate, places to step away from “normal” and reconnect with those deep currents of thought and emotion that keep us…combobulated. I wish that was a real word.

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 new 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.

Such a Feast

On the Episcopal Church’s liturgical calendar, February 27 is the day which commemorates George Herbert,  17th century Anglican priest and metaphysical poet.

Ambiguity, some would argue, is at the heart of Anglicanism, and it is also the essence of George Herbert’s poetry. Writing in 1928, T.S. Eliot, suggested that Herbert (1593-1633) appeared on the scene at a crucial moment in Anglican history. It was a time of circumnavigation as well as circumspection, a time when people showed a remarkable willingness to question the world around them, along with an increased understanding that Christian life requires both an interior spirituality and the outward and visible signs of music, stained glass, liturgy, and sacraments. Herbert’s faith was private and public, a both/and kind of faith rather than an either/or one.

It occurs to me that, though our world is largely explainable by science now, and God is, for most Episcopalians, not a terrifying, controlling presence in our lives, we still have questions for God, and we’re still uncomfortable with the ambiguous answers we’re given. The intimacy which Herbert established in the conversational tone of his poetry is, I believe, at the root of his appeal to our modern ears. Herbert’s God is approachable and loving.

soul composed of harmonies

That’s how a contemporary described Herbert, who played the lute and set some of his own poems to music, as did Purcell and the Wesley brothers in over forty hymns for the early Methodist hymnal. I would suggest, however, that Herbert’s poetry, for all its ties to the 17th century, in terms of vocabulary and assumptions about God’s place in everyone’s daily life, takes us into mystical, magical places that require a wider harmonic language than would have been used by composers of the Baroque, Classical and even Romantic periods of music history, and so it’s no surprise to me that it is 20th and 21st century composers who have so often found inspiration in Herbert’s texts. His words suggest a firm tonal center, but one that allows for sudden and unexpected excursions into far-flung tonalities.  His poems require richly atmospheric qualities that have been explored by composers, such as Randall Thompson, Ralph Vaughan Williams, John Tavener and many composers dedicated to writing for the Episcopal Church, including the former music director at General Theological Seminary, composer and organist David Hurd in his setting of Love Bade Me Welcome.

In this poem, God (Love) welcomes the narrator of the poem, presumably into Heaven, where a feast is offered, but the guest feels unworthy of Love’s hospitality. The poem is a dialogue, but at one moment it is unclear who speaks next: following Love’s question of who is to blame for the guest’s feeling of shame at his unworthiness, the answer is “My dear, then I will serve”, at which point Love invites the guest to sit down and eat. Is God serving the guest, or the guest serving God?

Perhaps you will be as surprised as I was to learn that the pop singer Madonna quoted George Herbert in her song “Love Tried to Welcome Me.” Love tried to welcome me, but my soul drew back, so goes the refrain.  Strange bedfellows or a sign of the value that Herbert’s 400 year old insights still carry? Feelings of unworthiness have sadly not gone out of fashion.

One of the things we know of Herbert’s life is that he was loved as a child by a vivacious and learned mother in a house filled with music and ideas, and that when he married at age 36, it was a happy union, all too soon followed by his death, at which he was surrounded by loving friends and family.  Love, as a elemental name for God, is so often the subject of Herbert’s poetry. His own love for God was anguished, it never seemed to him to be enough.

At the end of Herbert’s exuberant poem A True Hymn he writes that though our words be scant and “our heart sayes, (sighing to be approved); O, could I love!  And stops: God writeth, Loved.” For all his wondering whether or not his love for God was sufficient, Herbert’s faith assured him that God’s love in return was unhesitating. One musical setting: A True Hymn by Craig Phillips

Herbert’s 1633 poem, The Call, is from his collection called The Temple. It seems to be a calling out to God, rather than a listening for God’s instructions, as we so often define “call.” These are words of invitation, not command. Please come my way, my truth, my life, my light, my feast, my strength, my joy, my love, my heart. Like any good conversation,  perhaps “call” involves listening and talking.

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a Way, as gives us breath:
Such a Truth, as ends all strife:
Such a Life, as killeth death.

Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:
Such a Light, as shows a feast:
Such a Feast, as mends in length:
Such a Strength, as makes his guest.

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
Such a Joy, as none can move:
Such a Love, as none can part:
Such a Heart, as joyes in love.

Could a poem be any more simple and direct? Made almost exclusively out of single-syllable words, it has a clear structure that repeats the three introductory words of each stanza, in case there is any confusion about what God really represents in our lives. Truth, A (Eucharistic) Feast, Love. As much as listening for a call, we might also issue an invitation for these things to come more deeply into our lives. And the greatest of these is love. (I Cor. 13:13).  Is that our call?

As I understand it, the “metaphysical” poets, as a number of 17th century English poets are labeled, sought to describe reality beyond what science had to teach them.  They were particularly interested in illuminating God’s relationship to humans. In The Altar, the appearance of the poem as a physical ALTAR, upon reading describes the human HEART as altar – one made of stone that is “cut” by the power of God, leading to the death of selfish will as a SACRIFICE upon this ALTAR.

A broken ALTAR, Lord, thy servant rears,
Made of a heart, and cemented with teares:
Whose parts are as thy hand did frame;
No workman’s tool hath touched the same.
A HEART alone
Is such a stone,
As nothing but
Thy pow’r doth cut.
Wherefore each part
Of my hard heart
Meets in this frame,
To praise thy name.
That if I chance to hold my peace,
These stones to praise thee may not cease.
O let thy blessed SACRIFICE be mine,
And sanctifie this ALTAR to be thine.

If You Meet George Herbert on the Road, Kill Him must be one of the more unforgettable book titles I’ve ever come across (playing off the title of a pop psychology book that has Buddha in place of George Herbert)Though I haven’t read it, I believe the basic premise is that George Herbert set the bar pretty high for clergy.  He gave tirelessly to his parish of his time and treasure – contributing his own money for the repair and enlargement of the church where he served and ceaselessly riding about his parish on horseback to visit parishioners, conducting several services every day.  He became a parish priest during the last three years of his life, previously serving in Parliament, and by eschewing worldly advancement and becoming instead a country parson he demonstrated a level of humility that few are called to. But he also wore himself out, dying at age 39 in 1633.

Within his poems, George Herbert wrestled publicly with his self-doubts and difficulties, but his faith in a loving God never seemed to waver. The first part of The Windows , heard here in a musical setting by Alan Lewis, contains some of Herbert’s most cherished beliefs – that what we hear with our ears must also be heard by our conscience, and though we are crazie (flawed), God might still shine through us, as a window transmits light.

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 new 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.

 

Miserere

While I think we should be perfectly comfortable living with some doubts about what we believe, my wish for everyone is that there would be one moment in your life when you knew with all your heart that God existed. One such moment for me was hearing Gregorio Allegri’s setting of Psalm 51, Miserere Mei, Deus for the first time many years ago.  As it happens, this experience was at Winchester Cathedral during a performance that was part of the Southern Cathedrals Festival, so I grant that this was a setting where anyone would be likely to have a musical encounter with God.

Psalm 51 is part of the liturgy for Ash Wednesday, which marks the first day of Lent. Yesterday, at the church where I am currently serving, people received ashes on their foreheads as the choir sang Allegri’s work. My deepest hope is that the music created an incense of sound which enveloped their prayers. Or even better, perhaps it gave them a way to pray without using words.

The music’s three-part structure, alternating repetitions of a homophonic choral setting of the Miserere chant, men’s voices singing traditional plainsong, and a group of four soloists elaborating on the chant, work together to create a hypnotic effect. For me, hearing this piece can be an otherworldly experience, one which just may open a pathway to a deeper connection with God for some.

Perhaps, at this beginning to the season of Lent, you are able to take a few minutes from your day to hear a work of such beauty that surely God cannot be doubted. I particularly like this recording by the British ensemble The Sixteen. The music here communicates an urgency to the psalm’s plea that God have mercy on us, leaving us no room for rest or contentment in being without God.

Thou shalt make me hear of joy and gladness  (Psalm 51:8)

Read the words Psalm 51.   Listen to the music.

This is the kind of creation around which legends are created. Allegri (1582-1652), a singer in the Chapel Choir of Pope Urban VIII, probably composed his most famous work in the 1630’s. It is believed that it was sung exclusively in the Sistine Chapel, with threat of excommunication for anyone who transcribed the piece and sang it elsewhere.  A very young Mozart is said to have written it down after hearing the music once in 1770 while visiting Rome, adding luster to his already obvious genius. He has been credited with making the music available to the rest of the world, though the details are murky around exactly how Allegri’s work escaped from the Vatican. Whatever the circumstances, Mozart was not excommunicated for his part in releasing its sheer beauty for all to enjoy, and I suggest that hearing this music is a way to be in communion with God.

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 new 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.

Prepositions

I spent a lovely afternoon last week with a new friend, watching her play the sport of curling, a game which might be likened to croquet on ice – beer kegs and Viking costumes (it was Winter Carnival time!) notwithstanding. While I can’t begin to pretend that I understood any of the rules, I enjoyed observing the sociability and obvious good sportsmanship of the players, and I was made to feel very welcome.

Just like the Episcopal church, right? Lots of rules, not always comprehensible, but good sportsmanship is usually on display, and there is, ideally, a genuine sense of welcome extended towards those who don’t necessarily understand all the rules.

Who else cares about rules as much as Episcopalians?  Grammarians! In the great Venn diagram of life, there is probably a fair amount of overlap between the two. Episcopalians follow a calendar with very specific ways of describing the liturgical seasons which shape the year. We are coming to the end of the season after the Epiphany, having celebrated a month ago the Sundays of Christmas.  Following Ash Wednesday on February 14, we’ll find ourselves living in Lent, before moving into the week of Easter and then the Sundays after Easter, finally wrapping up the liturgical year with lots of Sundays after Pentecost, until we return to the Sundays of Advent.

Prepositions are small but mighty. They tell of location in one way or another – in time (before, during), of place (above, between), our state of mind (for, against). These three on our calendar – in, of, after – suggest three ways of experiencing a well-lived life to me: fully in the moment, as part of a community, seeing life through a lens of before and after the experiences which have the capacity to change us.

Rules are an important part of civil society, of living together in our families and communities of every kind. When rules trump love?  Then there’s a problem, and that is when it’s good to remember this advice:

Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.   Pablo Picasso

musical-instruments-1912

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 new 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.

Architecture

The Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Paul in Minnesota, remarkable for its setting on a hill overlooking the city and for its light-filled interior of arches and dome, has inspiring descriptions of its artwork and architecture posted for visitors to read, and I particularly enjoyed this one:

Just as sound is the language of the musician, so here space becomes the language of the architect.  Here we have symphonies of space and proportion producing on the senses and the soul something of the tonic and inspiring effect of Sacred music.  The moment you enter [a grand space] you feel that you have taken flight from the material world and in the majestic composition of space the soul soars heavenward…Truly such a building sings the glory of God.

6e22061e1e8620413ac3125fcf1688a4--st-pauls-cathedral-minnesota

We have need in our lives for lots of different kinds of spaces. Homes can provide nurture and tranquility. Public spaces can provide communal engagement or, as with libraries and parks, places of retreat. Whether we notice or not, design and architecture do so much to create these places of tranquility or engagement, of inspiring grandeur or nurturing comfort.

My husband and I made a brief trip to Lourdes when we were in France a few years ago. I wanted to see for myself what I had read about in a book by Dr. Esther Sternberg, titled Healing Places: The Science of Place and Well-Being.  In it she explores the science behind why certain places – places as divergent as Lourdes in France and a well-designed and light-filled nursing home in Connecticut – promote healing.  What she writes about are largely things that people have known intuitively for most of human history.  Natural beauty, sunlight, the comfort of those things which connect with our happy memories, and the stimulation of new experiences – all of these things are healing.

Sternberg saw something more than the kitsch and potential for false promises that many believe Lourdes represents. She saw love, compassion and acceptance at work among the healers and those seeking healing. She saw empathy and generosity among strangers, and the healing of hearts and minds, if not always bodies. She noted that the physical terrain around Lourdes served as a way to enter into another world and at the same time to “step from inside yourself to the world you share with others.”

Dr. Sternberg’s TEDx talk in 2013 has some lessons for places that have long been seen as places of healing – our churches. She tells of meeting an executive from Disney who said their goal was to consider every element of Disneyland in their quest to take someone from a place of anxiety and fear to one of hope and happiness.  Every element.  And she finishes with the story of her father, who found the only possible healing place during his internment at a concentration camp to be in his mind as he recited the 23rd Psalm. To consider every element of the present experience, while giving people the tools of our deepest faith connections, are the best guiding principles for any place of worship.

Those great intangibles of sacred sound and space are the beginning. Our wounded and closed hearts can be liberated by beautifully designed physical spaces and music that complements the architecture, but the healing really only continues with the fruitful relationships we have along the way. That’s when a building can sing the glory of God.

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 new 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.