Sing a New Song

For those in St. Paul, Minnesota this weekend, two opportunities to be curious about new songs:  Friday, April 13 at 7:30, pianist Sophia Vastek in concert, and Sunday, April 15, at 4:00 the Choir of St. John the Evangelist sings Evensong and a program titled Serenade to Music.  The first asks for donations to support the work of the Hallie Q. Brown Community Center.  The second celebrates the time that I have spent as Interim Music Director within this wonderful community of St. John the Evangelist, where we’ve sung quite a few new songs together.

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I had the chance to visit St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota this week, and spent some time in the gallery where pages of the Saint John’s Bible, along with descriptions of how this incredible work of art and act of faith came to be, are on display. It strikes me that, as the first illuminated, handwritten Bible to be commissioned by a Benedictine Monastery in over 500 years,  it is a kind of new song. Conceived in 1995 and completed in 2011, it is an incredible mix of old and new. Medieval materials of vellum, inks made from semi-precious stones, and the use of quill pens, are combined with contemporary artistic techniques and imagery that shows a modern appreciation for God’s work in the world, and an open-minded inclusion of other world religions. In it I see love – of God, of craft, of beauty – come through with every penstroke. There is a marriage of image and text that could guide us in  the Benedictine instruction to listen with the ears of our heart.

I am reminded of a piece that we will sing this Sunday by Scottish composer James Macmillan, Sing a New Song. In a brief interview, he talks about the human impetus to be curious and the urgency he hopes we sometimes feel to encounter something new. As a composer, he wonders how he can express his own creative instinct in music, and believes that our experiences of new music impel our curiosity about this world of ours. He too wants us to listen with the ears of our heart.

He put a new song in my mouth, so says Psalm 40.  We are commanded to sing a new song in Psalms 33, 96, 98 and 149.  A new song is offered to God in Psalm 144:9. Much like the illuminated St. John’s Bible, Macmillan’s A New Song takes the listener into a place that is at once ancient and new.

I found it interesting to see that the concept of “curiosity” is defined as an emotion and not as an instinct. We’re clearly born with the capacity to be curious, as every newborn demonstrates.  Instincts seem to be hard-wired, less flexible, more universal – fight or flight, protection of our young, perhaps even creativity is instinctual.  Emotions, on the other hand, have so many outside influences at work with our temperament.  Curiosity then, as an emotion, seems like something that can be developed or held in check. The curiosity of our childhoods is too often muted as we get older, but there are so many ways to be curious. Engineers wonder how things work, psychologists wonder how people think and interact, scholars wonder how ideas can be expressed.

Curiosity:  from Latin curiosus “careful, diligent” akin to cura, “care”

The etymology of curious shows the word’s relationship to an Anglican term for an assisting priest, a curate. Someone who “cares” for souls presumably.  If we take away curiosity in its negative forms – “morbid curiosity” and nosiness – we’re left with the idea of curiosity as a sign of caring and we might take that more to heart in our daily lives. Listen with the ears of your heart for new music.  Seek out new songs in other people and we will discover the gifts, joys and sorrows of the community around us.

Heartfelt thanks to the good people of St. John the Evangelist and their Rector for welcoming me so warmly these past three months!

Peace,
Sonya

Life-in-Community

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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.

 

 

 

Evensong

During a recent time of transition, as I questioned so much about my vocation, I realized that I was attending the Anglican service of Evensong quite often. Christ Church (Georgetown), St. Francis (Potomac), St. Thomas (Fifth Avenue, NYC), Washington National Cathedral and Christ Church Christiana Hundred (Delaware) became scenes of gentle healing, much needed and quietly strengthening.  For the uninitiated, Evensong is that afternoon offering to our ears, hearts and minds of prayers sung by a choir on the listener’s behalf.

I recalled that during a sabbatical in 2013 I had attended Evensong twelve times in seven different churches or cathedrals over a 3 month period. I was inspired by the most glorious music, written for God, sung beautifully by well-rehearsed choirs as part of a liturgy.  Not a performance, but performed well. 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 musicians who have practiced many long hours. 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.

Recently, I pulled Gail Godwin’s 1999 novel, Evensong, off the shelf to re-read. I’ve always loved her writing with its artful descriptions of simple joys and complex emotions. She intimately knows the Episcopal church, and writes perceptively about the broken people who are all around us. Who are us.  In Evensong she writes about those living in and passing through a small North Carolina town. Each character in some way has been abandoned, mostly by a parent or spouse, but also by their friends, schools, and yes, even their churches. I hadn’t noticed this theme the first time I read the book, but it was quietly apparent this time around.  God hadn’t abandoned any of Godwin’s characters, of course, but each sometimes felt alone in their earthly abandoned states.  And it would be unrealistic to think you might not question whatever grains of faith you had during those times.

“I’m beginning to think that the times when you lose your faith are the times of your deepest blessing. . . . It is the dark night of the soul. The mystics have written about it. You’re at your very lowest, you have no further to fall, everything is dark and then you can kind of be quiet and see what is speaking to you out of the darkness. . . . I would be more worried about the person who never lost her faith.” — Gail Godwin, from an interview in 1999.

I don’t think anyone feels particularly blessed in their aloneness, but perhaps that is the gift of Evensong. Finding an understanding of the difference between loneliness and aloneness, you can be quiet…experience what is speaking to you out of the darkness, and actively listen for wisdom, reminding you that you are not alone after.

The traditional canticles sung during Evensong are Mary’s Magnificat and Simeon’s Nunc dimittis. The link below is to one of my favorite settings, by Tudor court composer Orlando Gibbons.  Both Mary and Simeon are alone in their prayers, speaking to God in the darkness…and listening.

Peace,

Sonya


Where I’ll be:

May 22, May 29 and June 5 – organist/choir director for the 9:00 am, 11:15 am and 5:00 pm service at St. John’s, Norwood, 6701 Wisconsin Avenue, Chevy Chase, Maryland.  Experienced choral singers who would like sing with the choir there, come at 10:30 for rehearsal before the service.

May 31, June 2 and June 6 – performances of Brahms’ Requiem with the World Bank/IMF Chorus and orchestra, 1:00 pm each of these dates.  United Church (G and 20th) on May 31.  For performances at the World Bank (June 2) and IMF (June 6) visitors will need to get free passes by contacting worldbankimfchorus@gmail.com and allow a few extra minutes to get through the security checks at these institutions.

June 12 through August 14 – organist/choir director for the 10:00 am and 5:00 pm services at St. John’s, Norwood.  Come and sing with the Summer Choir there.  9:15 am rehearsal.

* * * * *

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.