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.

Unison

I began an adventure this past week, moving temporarily to a new city where I know almost no one, working in ways that require me to spend a lot of time alone. Like a lot of introverts, I don’t mind being alone, and I am blessed in never feeling lonely, but that isn’t to say I don’t enjoy all the daily interactions with others that I do have, in rehearsals and meetings and while exploring new places around me.

Author and social researcher Brene Brown has written and spoken, including most recently as the preacher at Washington National Cathedral, about loneliness as the greatest predictor of premature death – more than smoking or obesity.  She was quoting from a British study that’s making the rounds and which has caused the British government to take notice about the health care costs of loneliness.

Church as antidote to loneliness is not a new idea, but to my delight Brown mentioned that singing with people she doesn’t know is one of the best reasons to go to church. She then turned to the Cathedral’s superb choir seated behind the pulpit and, getting a good laugh from everyone, said something to the effect that those particular strangers would do!

YES! a well-trained choir is there to sing with a congregation. Occasionally, at Evensong for example, they are singing on behalf of a congregation, but never instead of, and certainly not despite.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who loved music so much, believed singing in unison was the best way for a community to pray together. The clarity and purity of unison singing – even when it’s somewhat out of tune croaking from the least musically-inclined –  for Bonhoeffer was the most joyful way to illuminate “the Word in its mystery.”

When voices come together in the words of a creed or in the tune and words of a hymn these are things which express the collective wisdom of many across time and place. Some can’t bring themselves to believe parts of the creeds we say, some cannot sing well…and yet these are still unison expressions of a community. Collectively we can believe the creeds, and collectively we can sing as one. Saying corporate prayers and singing in unison become the voice of the Church, not simply a collection of individual voices.

We need to know how to be alone as much as how to be in community, just as we need both self-sufficiency and human interactions in order to survive and to thrive. I believe that harmony and dissonance are as important to music as they are to social discourse, but as a musician I can say that it is training a choir to sing well in unison that is actually one of the hardest things there is to do. And I firmly believe that we are called on a regular basis to practice doing hard things.

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.

 

Advent 4 – Veni Emmanuel

This week contains the shortest days of the year, as well as one last opportunity to ponder the season of Advent. This is the turning point. Days now begin to gradually lengthen, and that for which we are waiting will soon be with us. In my mind’s ear I hear the bass soloist in  Handel’s Messiah singing:

For behold, darkness shall cover the earth…the people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; and they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.

I was probably well into early adulthood before I realized that it was actually the prophet Isaiah, and not Handel, who wrote about this time of darkness and the coming of a great light.

There is one hymn in particular which captures the urgency of our longing – for light, for salvation, for hope, for knowledge, for connection. O come, O come Emmanuel, expresses all that Advent holds for us, and takes us to a place of contemplation and quiet anticipation. Its medieval text and tune – written separately and of uncertain sources – are mysterious and comforting at the same time.

These “O” antiphons, as the words are known, are adaptations of medieval texts that were (and still are in some places) sung before and after the chanting of the Magnificat, one each in the seven days preceding Christmas Eve. Perhaps you’ve always wondered what those dates before each verse of Hymn #56 in The Hymnal 1982 meant?

Each of the seven different verses of Veni Emmanuel begins with a salutation in the form of a name for God, and then a petition based on that name:

(December 17) O Sapienta
O come, thou Wisdom, to us the path of knowledge show
(December 18)  O Adonai
O come, thou Lord of might, that didst give the law
(December 19)  O Radix Jesse
O come, thou Branch of Jesse’s tree, give them victory o’er the grave
(December 20)  O Clavis David
O come, thou Key of David, make safe the way that leads on high
(December 21)  O Oriens
O come, thou Dayspring from on high, disperse the gloomy clouds of night
(December 22)  O Rex gentium
O come, Desire of nations, be thyself our King of Peace
(December 23)  O Emmanuel
O come, Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel

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 marvelous response to Gabriel’s news that she would bear a son. If only we were all able to be as open-hearted and accepting of God’s plan for us. With each verse of O come, O come Emmanuel we are summoning God into our lives, but there needs to be room in our hearts for all the ways that God might open our minds and cause us to change.

The duality of Advent includes the knowledge that we are awaiting something which we already have – God’s love. Light and dark, joy and penance, a baby both human and divine. The very word Emmanuel, Hebrew for “God with us,” suggests reality, however, and not just a hope. We sing our invitation with Veni Emmanuel. Be ready then to make room.

Veni Emmanuel – instrumental version, with photos from the Holy Land

Peace,
Sonya

Advent 3 – Carols

In his Preface to The Oxford Book of Carols, Percy Dearmer, one of the editors of that  collection, begins with a description of carols that I simply cannot top: Carols are songs with a religious impulse that are simple, hilarious, popular, and modern. With roots in the country dances of 15th and 16th century Europe, the hilarity of hard-working people at play is sometimes quite evident in the carols we still sing, such as God rest you merry, gentlemen…Good Christian friends, rejoice…Deck the halls.  

The medieval “miracle” plays of 14th and 15th century England – so-called because they dramatized the miracles and momentous events of Christ’s incarnation and life – were an early source of songs about Christ’s birth written in the vernacular. Performed outside the church by members of the various guilds, livelier dance tunes eventually replaced more serious forms of church-approved music. Carols were born from that great flowering of humanism in the 15th century, as a reaction to the contemplative plainsong of the Church and heavy-handed theological thinking which frowned on joy. Because carols were linked to dance music, they were regarded with some suspicion by church leaders and then abolished by Cromwell in 1647.

Carols remained an underground form of music-making by rural folks during the puritanical 17th and 18th centuries, but singing them was almost extinct by the time Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol in 1843. The word “carol” had come to signify Christmas poems and stories without music. It was the discovery in 1852 of a medieval Swedish book, the Piae Cantiones, from which we have several popular carols today, together with a growing appreciation and scientific interest in collecting folk music in the late 19th century, which gave impetus to the revival of carol singing.

Carols are simple and popular, so says Dearmer in his extended preface to what is an invaluable source of Christmas carols, because “the typical carol gives voice to the common emotions of healthy people in language that can be understood and music that can be shared by all.”

But modern? We don’t usually think about carols as an expression of current times, yet anything which lasts for hundreds of years expresses in some way the timeless ideas of its own age. A 19th century American carol, It came upon a midnight clear, found in The Hymnal 1982 at #89, was authored by a Unitarian minister for a population on the brink of civil war. He didn’t write about the birth of Christ, but rather about angels and “Peace on the earth, goodwill to men.”  And then, in verse 3:

Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long,
beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled two thousand years of wrong;
and warring humankind hears not the tidings which they bring;
O hush the noise and cease your strife and hear the angels sing!

Hardly hilarious, but sadly timeless.

It’s not always easy, and never really necessary, to make a clear distinction between hymns and carols, but one broadly stated difference could be that the tune takes precedence in carols, and the text does so in hymns.  Or perhaps carols could be defined by their danceability!

Percy Dearmer ends his preface, written in 1928, with yet more quotable words: Perhaps nothing is just now of such importance as to increase the element of joy in religion; people crowd in our churches at the Christmas and Easter Festivals, largely because the hymns for those occasions are full of a sound hilarity.

Sound hilarity. That is something to which we might aspire in our carol singing!

Peace,
Sonya

Advent 2 – Dichotomy

This painting by German artist Beate Heinen captures for me the dual nature of Advent, the liturgical season which begins the church year with four Sundays preceding Christmas. During this time we arManger and Cross, Beate Heinene called to joy and penance in equal measure.  It is a season which reflects the darkness of the natural world and the candles of our inner light, beginnings and end times, the comfort of God’s word and the discomfort of the prophets’ words which we hear in the readings throughout these four Sundays of Advent.

“Manger and the Cross” is the painting’s title, and both of those symbols of our faith reveal God’s love for us. I find beauty in its complete representation of the story we begin each Advent, and as I look at it I am reminded of a poem I discovered some years ago as a text for a piece of music. Though I find the poem incredibly moving, I’ve never found quite the right time to program a song which is planted so firmly in both Advent and Lent. The words are by Dorothy Parker, the American poet best known for her wit and wisecracks.

Prayer for a New Mother

The things she knew, let her forget again-
The voices in the sky, the fear, the cold,
The gaping shepherds, and the queer old men
Piling their clumsy gifts of foreign gold.

Let her have laughter with her little one;
Teach her the endless, tuneless songs to sing,
Grant her her right to whisper to her son
The foolish names one dare not call a king.

Keep from her dreams the rumble of a crowd,
The smell of rough-cut wood, the trail of red,
The thick and chilly whiteness of the shroud
That wraps the strange new body of the dead.

Ah, let her go, kind Lord, where mothers go
And boast his pretty words and ways, and plan
The proud and happy years that they shall know
Together, when her son is grown a man.

 

May you find these weeks of Advent to be a time of comfort and discomfort, joy and penance, questions and answers, a time of resting and a time of moving towards light and rebirth.  And as Parker hopes for Mary, a time of learning how to let laughter and dreams triumph over our knowledge of life’s dark places.

Peace,
Sonya