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.

 

The Moment to Decide

Thou that hast given so much to me
give one thing more, a grateful heart.
Not thankful when it pleaseth me,
as if Thy blessings had spare days —
but such a heart, whose pulse may be Thy praise.

from “Gratefulness” by George Herbert

Cultivating, expressing, and living a life of gratitude are decisions we each make for ourselves. Feeling grateful can come from a place of abundance in our lives, but I have a feeling it comes more often from a place of scarcity, or even despair. Those moments when we are stripped down to a basic level of survival – be that emotional or physical survival – and we somehow summon gratitude for another day, a kindness shown, or even just an awareness that our pain is a sign that we have loved and been loved. These are clear connections with God in a way that lifts us from scarcity to abundance.

Think of all that you are blessed with.  A loving family? Educational opportunities? The chance to travel the world? Material wealth? Good health? Sincere friendships?  Resilience?  Charisma? The possibilities are many.  The best gifts are given without expectation of anything in return, but blessings? Those put us in God’s debt and we do owe something back to the world for our blessings.

President Kennedy, echoing words from Luke 12:48, reminded a prosperous America in 1961: “For of those to whom much is given, much is required.”

 *   *   *   *   *

Three people in the past week or so have individually mentioned the same hymn to me. Coincidence?  Holy Spirit?  It comes from The Hymnal 1940, and though I know the tune well (the wonderfully sturdy Welsh tune, supposedly found in a bottle on its rugged coastline…Ton-y-botel), the words were less familiar to me.  I suppose the editorial committee for The Hymnal 1982 couldn’t imagine us singing these words into the 21st century and so it didn’t make the cut:

Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah, off’ring each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever ‘twixt that darkness and that light.

From a poem written to protest the Mexican War and the increased territory for slavery which that war portended, the hymn’s text continues:

Then the brave man chooses, while the coward stands aside till the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied (v. 2), and …toiling up new Calvaries ever with the cross that turns not back; new occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth (v. 3) and in the final verse…Though the cause of evil prosper, yet ’tis truth alone is strong.  

You will find the text in its entirety here. Do you agree that these words have relevance for us in 2017, occasional masculine language notwithstanding? New CalvariesGod’s new Messiah…new occasions teach new duties…new forms of human cruelty and deception, new reasons to strengthen our resolve for truth and justice.

This is bold language, words to shake us from complacency.  Perhaps too directive though, too black and white? But aren’t some things simply wrong? Is every problem shaded in gray? If a simple question were to be asked of any action – does it create more goodwill and love in the world? – would that pull us out of some of life’s gray areas?

Each of us has abundant blessings of one kind or another. Our obligation in turn is to see each decision – even seemingly insignificant ones – as moments to decide ‘twixt that darkness and that light.

With a grateful heart,
Sonya

Sanctus…Some Free Associations

A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of coaching an excellent, 100+ voice high school choir from Pennsylvania as they prepared to sing in a competition. One of the pieces they sang for me was a setting of the liturgical text Sanctus (Holy, holy, holy) by a young Norwegian-American composer, Ola Gjeilo.

I asked if the students knew what they were singing, and a few did know that Sanctus translated as “holy.”  No one, however, connected the elaborate setting they were singing in performance to anything that might be sung in church every week, though more than a few were undoubtedly also singing in their church choirs. I found myself explaining that the richness of the chords they were singing in the Gjeilo setting were a wonderful representation of this central part of our liturgy, when the people join their minds and hearts and voices together with the “Angels and Archangels and all the company of heaven.”  Maybe I crossed some church vs state line that I shouldn’t have, but a deeper understanding seemed worth that risk.

As I further reflected on this notion of the Sanctus as a point of convergence, I saw that moment in the liturgy as one where heaven and earth come together, giving us a glimpse of true communion. Liturgy emerged from my imagination in an hourglass shape – something akin to a George Herbert poem.

Coming from every direction, the people gather in church
Liturgy of the word and sermon
Creed and Prayers
Offertory
Sanctus
Eucharistic Prayer
The people partake in communion
Renewed and fed, the people disperse into the world

If you know the works of George Herbert, then you may already have made the same free association that I did with The Altar. The “metaphysical” poets, as a number of 17th century English poets, including George Herbert, 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 workmans tool hath touch’d 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.

Since I’ve already made a free association between the Sanctus and George Herbert, I’ll continue with a few more. From the poem’s second line:

…cemented with teares

My engineer/poet/philosopher father wrote his dissertation on concrete, so I happen to know that concrete must be kept wet in order to properly cure.  In that same way, tears strengthen the emotions we feel. Whether these are moments of sadness or happiness, love and compassion are strengthened when tears are present.

When Jesus wept, the falling tear in mercy flowed beyond all bound

Early American composer William Billings wrote a tune for these words that paints “falling tears” as clearly as Herbert draws his Altar above.  That tune is found in The Hymnal 1982 at #715, and it is beautifully used by 20th century American composer William Schuman in his New England Triptych..

I’ve come a long way from Sanctus, but our journeys are rarely in straight lines!

Peace,
Sonya

Lovingkindness

For anyone who decries the grammar-challenging flexibility found at the birth of a new word, consider the word “lovingkindness.” I doubt that Myles Coverdale had any idea what a useful word he was creating in 1535 when he used it for the first time in his translation of the Bible into English. It’s a word which has since proven handy when translating precepts important in Hinduism (Priti) and Buddhism (Mettā), as well as Judaism, where the Hebrew word חסד (chesed) is most often translated into English as lovingkindness. The lovingkindness of God is invoked many times in Coverdale’s Psalms, though it strikes me that the original psalmist assumed that people do not have a comparable ability for that same forgiving, non-judgmental love.

 You, O LORD, will not withhold Your compassion from me; Your lovingkindness and Your truth will continually preserve me. – Psalm 40:11

Yet gemilut hasadim is the Jewish mitzvah which commands that one act with lovingkindness, without expectation of anything in return. It is a religious duty that requires one to “love your neighbor as yourself.” We can at least aspire to equal God’s capacity for lovingkindness in our daily interactions.

This melding of love and kindness into a single motivation for our actions implies a gentle attitude of service that does not come easily to many of us, but Bach’s 9th Goldberg Variation led me to think more about what this might look like. Or at least what it might feel like.

Goldberg Variations – 9 (Lovingkindness)

I’ve been slowly savoring a beautiful biography about 17th century poet and Anglican priest George Herbert which is called Music at Midnight. Though he never used the word “lovingkindness” in any of his poems as far as I know, he often wrote about such an intention, as in Love (III).

In Herbert’s best known poem (set to music by several composers, incidentally), God welcomes the narrator of the poem, presumably into Heaven, where a feast is offered, though the guest feels unworthy of Love’s hospitality. The poem’s dialogue between Love and the guest leaves the reader uncertain about who is speaking one significant line near the end.  Following Love’s question of who is to blame for the guest’s feeling of shame at his unworthiness for such a feast, it is unclear who then says “My dear, then I will serve.”

Is God serving the guest, or the guest serving God?  Each, it seems, feels the mitzvah to serve the other with lovingkindness. I’m so glad a new word was born in 1535.

Peace,
Sonya

P.S.  This Sunday, March 19, I’ll be playing on the annual Bach Marathon at Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church.  Come and go as you please, it’s free. Bach Marathon 2017


I’ve lived with Bach’s Goldberg Variations for a long time now. More than half my lifetime in fact. I would pull them out periodically, feeling that I was revisiting an old friend, but a friend who always has something new to share. I began thinking about Bach and mindfulness last year in a way that meant something to me. Each variation became linked in my mind with a word and that word became something like the “intention” that yoga students are sometimes asked to set for their practice. A word to mediate on and to help draw more from within. For the next 32 weeks I will post one of the variations and write about the word I associated with the music. Sometimes a connection will seem obvious, but more often it will be unexplainable. It became apparent as I worked on this project that I thought about things which I wanted to cultivate in myself, ways of being in the world that were positive. All of the recordings are to be made in my living room, playing the 9 foot Steinway that was gifted to me on January 5, 2016.