Why Bother?

(from November, 2011 and July, 2014 posts)

I remember going into a church some time ago as a woman was putting finishing touches on the altar’s flower arrangements. I made a few admiring comments and she said that her purpose had been to recall the blood of martyrs by using the dramatic streaks of red gladiolus I was seeing, in honor of Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, whose feast day it was that day and for Saints Peter and Paul, whose feast day was to come two days later.

Well, I’m sure you would have made that connection right away, but I admit it eluded me at first glance. Having read a charming book called The Language of Flowers (an enjoyable beach read), I knew that flowers carry symbolic meanings for some, and that in the language of flowers the gladiolus represents strength of character and honor.  Would anyone else seeing those flowers have all those bits of knowledge at hand?  Irenaeus….symbolic meaning of flowers… Probably not, but does that matter?  Not at all, in my opinion. Our days are filled with small connections and invisible acts that enrich our lives without us even realizing it.

Several years ago I wondered aloud with a colleague why I put so much thought into hymn choices, making key relationships with prelude and postlude music, thinking about meters for walking hymns and texts that are theologically sound, on top of relating the hymns to readings and liturgical seasons. He assured me that the flow of the liturgy was enhanced and appreciated in ways that no one would ever be able to verbalize, and I took that heart.  I remember now a conversation with another colleague about Evensong and other Daily Offices, and the comfort she found in simply knowing that prayers and music have been sung in cathedrals and monasteries on our behalf for many hundreds of years. Swirling around us at any given time is an invisible world of prayers and intentions.

I am reminded of something I heard years ago about The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, directed by Peter Jackson. He insisted that the miniature sets being created to simulate some parts of the Middle Earth be constructed so that even the backs of the sets – the parts never seen by an audience – were as completely and authentically built as the parts that would be seen on film.  And I read somewhere that Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling created many more characters and events for her stories than ever made it into the series’ seven books.  A whole world beyond what was on the page somehow lurked behind what we were reading and made the experience all the more rich.

We may not ever be aware of the unheard thoughts – red flowers, a prelude in C minor before a hymn in Eb Major, characters that didn’t make it to the page – that thread through our lives, but that doesn’t diminish their value. I appreciate those moments of subtlety versus conspicuousness, humility versus flamboyance, poetry versus prose. Every day we might remind ourselves that the uncelebrated work of our lives still carries a beauty and importance about it.  Kindness, joy, friendship, faith…these are the often unheralded things which create a richly led life.

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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.

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.

Wonder and Song

Expectations – that is the first audible word on this bit from a video made at the World Science Festival in 2009, which I’ve shared with readers several times in the past.  It’s a video which continues to amaze me. As you’ll see,  the brain manages our expectations in all kinds of surprising ways:

Bobby McFerrin-World Science Festival

Clearly Bobby McFerrin is a gifted teacher, a supremely talented musician, and a creative thinker on all fronts.  The pentatonic scale that he is teaching to this audience (of scientists presumably, rather than musicians) is a universal building block for folk music around the world.  The music we would likely consider most comfortable to sing is often based on a pentatonic scale – that is, a series of intervals equivalent to the five black notes on the piano.  For instance, you could play Amazing grace, how sweet the sound or Sometimes I feel like a motherless child almost entirely on only the piano’s black keys.

I would never have guessed that McFerrin could so easily manage expectations and lead the audience members to unknowingly sing a pentatonic melody.  To see the brain process a musical concept like this right in front of my eyes was fascinating and I am awed by the continuing revelations through scientific study of how wonderfully we are made.  So wonderfully, in fact, that our brains seem to be hard-wired for music, thanks be to God!

This all came to mind this past Sunday when someone commented on an anthem setting sung that morning of the hymn What wondrous love is this, out of that marvelous early American resource of religious song, The Sacred Harp. We talked about the strength of that tune, and the rootedness of music which emerges from any folk tradition, and I was reminded of McFerrin’s dance through the pentatonic scale.

If you play the piano even a little, you can begin the tune on A-flat and play the whole of What wondrous love on the black notes (with one exception…your ear will tell you what to do). The sound is not exactly minor, but it’s certainly not a major key either. The tune expresses the expansive, open quality we often associate with American music, with its plain rhythms and its call to be harmonized with open fifths which refuse to anchor the listener in either sadness or happiness, but simply in strength. The text incorporates three simple expressions of faith – wonder, song and the timelessness of God’s love.

What wondrous love is this, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss
to lay aside his crown for my soul.
 
To God and to the Lamb, I will sing.
To God and to the Lamb who is the great I AM,
while millions join the theme I will sing.
 
And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on.
And when from death I’m free I’ll sing and joyful be,
and through eternity I’ll sing on.

Expectations, at heart, are simply strong beliefs, and in that spirit my expectations include a willingness to live into the belief that God has lovingly designed us for wonder and song.

Peace,
Sonya