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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Passionate Moderation

My husband and I met the Queen of England in 2008. That alone is a wonderful thing, but the story of how it happened is actually my favorite part of the whole experience. We were at the Lambeth Conference on a summer day, one that was quite hot, even for Americans.  We had been invited to afternoon tea at Buckingham Palace, along with a few thousand other people.  The Queen has a lovely back yard, really more of a park, but the sultry weather had caused everyone to gather on the sidelines under the shade of trees and tea tents, lined up on the right and left of an enormous, sunny expanse of lawn. We decided to take a stroll, and went straight up the middle of this open area, far from any others.  A man in a morning suit appeared, really it seemed out of nowhere, and asked if we wanted to meet the Queen. That was an easy question to answer, and we had our brief brush with royalty.

The point of my story is that we were walking in the middle, alone in that expanse of lawn, with the thousands of other guests far away on either side. I think that made us an easy target for the man in the morning suit on his mission of rounding up a few commoners for the Queen’s reception line. In this case, the middle ground served us well!

I really value the via media, that middle way that builds consensus and sees both sides, even if it can seem like a namby-pamby approach to life. We’re often told to follow our passions – to feel strongly about those things we believe to be true – or false. Yet, in this world of winners and losers, black and white, right and wrong, good and bad…all that clear division of thought cries out for a via media else we forget how to talk to each other at all.

And so, I am choosing to cultivate a passion for moderation. Now, if everyone did that things would get boring pretty fast, but there’s probably no danger of a huge growth in passionate moderation anytime soon. I do believe that we really need people who bring their zeal to both conservative and liberal thinking, though that doesn’t include extremists who distort the truth and abandon motivations of love. Unfortunately, the extremes on either side are sort of like those people standing on either side of the Queen’s lawn – they just might be missing something to be found in the middle.

With all of the attention lately paid to the Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, I found it particularly interesting that a May 26th Washington Post article ended an article about Bishop Curry with this line:  I think the story these days is not the rise of the religious left, but the religious middle. If Bishop Curry is any guide, it’s possible for that middle ground to be full of passion’s energy.

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.

 

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.

 

Hymnal Studies: Language Matters

The Once and Future Hymnal was the title of a conference I attended a few weeks ago at Virginia Theological Seminary. Though I don’t think there was any intention to make a connection with T.H. White’s fantasy novel about King Arthur, exploring human nature in connection with justice and power may well be a common theme between Episcopal hymnody and The Once and Future King. That would be something, however, to explore another day!

It was a privilege to step out of my routine and gather with colleagues from around the country, both clergy and musicians, to think about the Episcopal hymnal. Beyond privilege, it was a pleasure to hear from some of the original members of the planning committee for The Hymnal 1982, as well as from those who worked on the hymnals that have been put out more recently by the Presbyterian and Lutheran churches. The Reverend Frank Wade spoke to us about some of the changes the Episcopal Church has lived through since 1982, leaving it to the musicians in the room to figure out how those changes might have influenced what we sing.

The biggest take-away for me, and many that I talked to there, seemed to be an agreement that The Hymnal 1982 remains a valuable resource for the Episcopal Church, with gifts still to be explored by many churches. The hymnal’s General Editor, Ray Glover, established a guiding principle that “we should always be able to sing what we believe and believe what we sing.” That editorial committee, which worked for more than a decade, took some risks by including a few more experimental hymns, but, with rare exception, it is indeed a book which allows us to sing what we believe, even 35 years later.

This conference was a celebration of word more than of music, however. The Episcopal Church, we were reminded, prizes questions over answers, and language in the church is most valuable when it provides access to the mystery of faith, not answers. Church at its best gives us language to deal with uncertainty, and is likely one of the few places in our culture where mystery is valued.

One of the speakers, poet and hymn writer Susan Cherwien asks herself four questions as she is writing: Is it true? Is it beautiful? Is it excellent? Does it glorify God? What are we singing out into the world, she wonders. Is it about compassion, nobility, God’s beautiful creation? She cited scientific studies which found that the part of our brains connected to smell light up when we are simply reading about a scent. Other places in the brain connected to physical activity light up when reading about running. Language matters.

Language matters to the point that even a preposition can make all the difference. Frank Wade talked about the single resolution on diversity which came out of the 1976 General Convention. That resolution expressed the belief that the Episcopal Church should endeavor to minister more fully “to” people from diverse backgrounds. Oh my, how patronizing.

Carl Daw, Episcopal priest and acclaimed author of many hymn texts, warned about the dangers of using language as a weapon instead of a tool. Those times when words are used to diminish people, which can get into the tricky area of gender-based language…definitely a topic for another day. He mused, as well, on the word “Lord.” A troublesome word in today’s enlightened recognition of all the ways that patriarchal hierarchy has not served us well. He wishes we would look more deeply at our words and reclaim some of their original meanings. So many words fall into that category: Anglican, traditional, conservative…just to name a few. “Lord,” he told us, comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning “loaf warden.” The keeper of the bread. One who provides.

We were cautioned about music’s ability to hide the venom inherent in some language. Frank Wade wonders why we sing some of the wrath-filled psalms that we do, without explaining them to our congregations. Good point. Singing a refined Anglican chant setting of Psalm 149:6-9 only serves to soften a harshness I don’t think we believe. Again, we should be able to sing what we believe, and believe what we sing.

This conference was a very preliminary conversation, one that simply wondered about all that goes into planning a new hymnal, without any intent to actually begin that planning. A new hymnal for the Episcopal Church is something, by the way, which can’t happen until there is a new Book of Common Prayer, and I suggest we not hold our collective breath waiting for that to happen.

Why have a hymnal at all? How about having iPads in the pews which can access whatever the clergy and church musicians find online to create a unique worship experience? I can think of several good reasons to have an real book. The tactile message of stability which a book conveys might be more important than ever in our quickly changing world. A body of hymnody which is shared across the broad spectrum of the Episcopal Church has the ability to bind us into a community as much as The Book of Common Prayer. A hymnal honors generations of thinking and leaves room for a current generation’s contribution to hymnody, becoming a repository of tradition in a way that connects past and future.

No editorial committee, however wise, is able to know what will last, of course, and determining the quality of a hymn’s tune or a text is largely subjective. Even so, what I hear again and again when I’ve asked people why they are drawn to the Episcopal Church, is that they fell in love with the beauty of the language which shapes our liturgy, whether spoken or sung. Language matters. Great hymns have great texts. Where else in today’s culture will we hear, say, and sing words which cause our minds, hearts, and spirits to soar?

Exhibit A: Hymnal 1982 #382, tune: General Seminary

Peace
Sonya

Evensong

Maybe the Anglican service of Evensong seems frivolous, in light of the needs and suffering in this world. Attending Evensong is an interior experience, one that is personal and private. It’s also a labor-intensive service, musically rich, but seemingly passive for the congregation. A few weeks ago, a sermon (during Eucharist, not Evensong, which rarely includes a sermon) about the power of gentleness to change our culture of violence made me think, however, that it’s not so frivolous after all to spend a few minutes exploring what makes this gentlest of worship experiences, Evensong, continue to be an important part of our tradition.

In fact, it was suggested to me that I write something about Evensong and expand on it a bit in relation to a class being taught this fall to people who are interested in learning more about the Episcopal Church.  This uniquely Anglican/Episcopal experience, nurtured in just a few churches these days, is intended to be part of a daily spiritual practice, one which is part of a centuries-old tradition of having prayers said and sung on your behalf, much as monks and nuns have done in their daily services for even more centuries.

In this country very few people these days, no surprise, make the time for, or have access to, a daily service of Evensong. In the U.K. it’s a different story. Cathedral worship, and Evensong in particular, has been where the Anglican church sees growth, particularly among a younger generation who are finding meaning in mystery. One British study showed an increase of 60% in Evensong attendance in the past decade. Read more. We are fortunate in this area to have Washington National Cathedral’s daily offering of Evensong, and several other churches with weekly or monthly choral Evensong as well.

The choir’s music during Evensong is as much prayer as any spoken words and the prayers of Evensong become part of the fabric of the building. I think people can sense those prayers, soaked into the walls, when they walk into a church or cathedral. Whether spoken or sung, these are prayers which become part of the gentleness we send out into the world.

In 2013, while on sabbatical, I attended Evensong twelve times in seven different churches or cathedrals. For me, these were chances to experience glorious music written for God, sung beautifully by well-rehearsed choirs as part of a liturgy and not in performance. While I simply listened, I worshiped. I was able to absorb the beauty of the architecture around me, admire the composers’ craft, and appreciate the shape that liturgy takes in the hands of organists who have practiced many long hours.  I even failed to notice the vergers (this is a good thing) who work to make liturgy appear seamless.

On a good day liturgy can come together to create flow – a psychological term that describes a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of an activity. In this case, the activity for me was participating in liturgy as a listener. I think sometimes we get so caught up in doing, and I am grateful for those times when I’m allowed to just be. That is what Evensong promises.

In the Episcopal Church our faith is expressed in words and symbols, in music and banners, in architecture and vestments. All of our senses will be engaged when worship is done well. But most important, our faith is expressed in the joy that radiates from each of us when we truly experience God in worship. The Episcopal Church has given us all a gift with Evensong, a way to absorb God’s gifts of beauty, to participate in corporate prayers, and to celebrate God’s transcendence.

Peace,
Sonya