Love is the Lesson

An Easter treat in the form of a beautiful work for choir by my friend Gary Davison. I asked him to write a piece in 2004 for an anniversary celebration and he set this text by Edmund Spenser, which ends with the simple petition – So let us love, dear love, like as we ought; Love is the lesson which the Lord us taught. As is so often the case, profundity lies in simplicity. And as human history has too often shown us, we aren’t very good at keeping things simple.

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English poet Edmund Spenser (1552/3-1599) was a contemporary of this week’s birthday boy, William Shakespeare (1564-1616), usually celebrated on April 23 or 24. While Spenser seemed to work within Tudor political machinations, writing in praise of the Queen and to gain favor with the nobility, Shakespeare seems to be more of an outsider, quicker to cast a skeptical eye on the institutions of his time and the people who ran them. But that’s just my unscholarly summary of two of the English language’s greatest writers.

Spenser’s sonnet, and the whole liturgically-based cycle from which it comes, Amoretti, demonstrates his comfort with the Anglican church and its theology. Debates, on the other hand, about Shakespeare’s belief in God, his churchmanship or whatever else might be ascertained about his religious convictions, are less clear, especially considering his acknowledged role as one of the preeminent humanists of all time. Love was often the lesson, but for Shakespeare it was always an arduous one.

What I think has appealed to most of us during these past 400 years is Shakespeare’s ability to write about every aspect of human character – its many frailties, its potential for redemption and forgiveness, its capacity for love and sacrifice. Just as “there lives more faith in honest doubt” (Tennyson), I believe there lives more understanding of God in our evolving and ever-expanding awareness of God’s complicated creation known as humankind. Thank you, Mr. Shakespeare, for giving us so many windows into that perplexing creature, and happy birthday.

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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.

Thumbing Your Nose

Easter fell on April Fools Day this year, and one of my musical colleagues handed out bulletins to the choir that had Christmas carols listed for the hymns. I’m guessing that chaos and consternation ensued! There were surely plenty of unfortunate jokes told as part of sermons all over the world as well, and so it doesn’t feel quite as unseemly as it might to suggest that we were celebrating Jesus thumbing his nose at death on Easter.

Thumbing his nose? Where on earth did that kooky expression originate? No one really knows, but possibly in 18th century Britain, and really, could it be anything except British? It’s a phrase which implies contempt, but with a good dose of humor, not anger. Someone who does the actual thumbing is expressing a measure of confidence, of resilience, of freedom. To do it literally is childish and disrespectful, I suppose, but metaphorically it can be empowering.

No composer thumbed his nose at authority more beautifully than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whether at the dominance of his father over his career and life decisions, or at the Archbishop of Salzburg who employed him and demanded simplicity and brevity above all from the young composer’s works for the church. Mozart did attempt to comply in the several Missa brevis settings he wrote for Salzburg Cathedral, but you can’t shake off the feeling that he chafed at these restrictions on his creativity.  The Missa brevis, K. 194 that will be sung at St. John’s this Sunday (accompanied by The Artaria Quartet) is short, it’s true, and he sets the long texts of the Gloria and Credo with great economy, simple textures, and spare instrumentation, as the Archbishop demanded, but the drama of opera is lurking just below the surface of those liturgical texts. It is like a barely-contained gremlin bumping against the walls of its sacred box.

When one person protests she is often called a troublemaker or crazy, or, very rarely, a prophet. In Mozart’s case, history calls his protests genius. When many people protest oppression, however, it becomes a movement. Personally, I’d like to avoid being labeled as crazy, and “genius” or “prophet” aren’t attributes I can claim, which leaves being part of a movement for me. The goal for any protest is justice, and that’s the only movement that really matters. What are the goals of justice, after all, except those of truth and love, often defined as the cause of freedom? Maybe Mozart’s music will plant a little seed of protest in your own heart against small-mindedness and the control of conformity.

Perhaps you will find the exuberance in Mozart’s sacred music inappropriate to the words of a usually somber Kyrie eleison or Agnus dei, but I hear an authentic expression of joy in these and all parts of the sung Eucharistic celebration – Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei. Joy is as close to freedom as I can imagine. Thumb your nose at injustice then, because true joy cannot be born out of oppression.

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.

 

 

Joy in Sadness

You’ve probably heard music written in a minor key that ends with a final major chord which lands on the ears like a ray of sunshine coming through the clouds. That kind of moment in music is known as a Picardy third – taking a minor chord and raising the middle note to create a major chord – and it certainly has a place in music-making.  Sadness to cheerfulness.  A happy ending.

Recently, while preparing Bach’s Fantasy and Fugue in G Minor, BWV 542 for a concert, I found myself grinning during a particularly favorite passage near the end of the fugue. I felt such joy shining through the minor key.

Sun through cloudsIt’s not a big step for most of us to think about the possibility of joy coming after sadness goes away.  I think we have a harder time thinking about experiencing joy IN sadness. Not so much finding that the dark clouds have moved away and the sun is back in full force, but those magical times when diffused rays of sun come through the dark clouds.  Perhaps when someone we love has died and we are mourning their loss, yet feeling grateful at the same time that they were ever part of our lives. Or when someone we trust betrays us, feeling fortunate to have new insights into what true friendship looks like in contrast.  Perhaps something doesn’t work out the way we hope, yet we have enough wisdom to find gladness in the possibilities of our future.

In yoga, a set of principles known as niyamas offer the prescription of santosha as a way of finding joy through contentment with what is.  Not what could or should be, but an embrace of the place where we are now.  Dark clouds and all.

I am no Pollyanna about finding rays of sun through the darkest clouds.  It would be unrealistic, not to mention unkind, to expect victims of tragedy to find joy in their pain. Maybe, just maybe, in that case we can find ways to be the diffused light so desperately needed by others in our world.  It seems like very little, yet perhaps we can simply cling to what makes us human by continuing to pursue understanding and beauty.  And that brings me back to Bach’s great fugue in G minor, even ending, as it does, with a Picardy third. 

Here is what this Holy Week holds for me:  playing for a Maundy Thursday service at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, attending the Good Friday service at Washington National Cathedral, and for the first and perhaps only time ever, worshiping  with my husband on Easter Sunday, also at Washington National Cathedral.  Having experienced Holy Week in some sense already this year, I am grateful to learn that I still care about being in church and am gingerly walking my way through the Triduum.

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 to be grateful for.