Compassion

I attended a concert recently by a college choir that was performing Handel’s Messiah. The conductor introduced the concert to his likely mostly unchurched audience by telling them that it didn’t matter what they believed, that this was music which told a story of hope in the form of a baby, and which ended with the pain of a mother watching her son die a horrible death. Anyone could feel some connection to those parts of the Christian narrative, he posited, and I have to agree.  Babies do imply hope for the future, and is there anything more harrowing than a grieving mother’s pain?

There is a 13th century Italian poem about one mother’s grief, Mary’s suffering at the foot of the cross.  These words have been set to music by composers some 600 times –Stabat mater dolorosa, “the sorrowful mother was standing” –  and it is a text which has inspired composers from Josquin des Prez to Arvo Pärt, Palestrina to Verdi.

At Church of the Epiphany this Good Friday at 12:10 p.m. a quartet of soloists will sing the Stabat Mater by Emanuele d’Astorga (1680-1757?).  D’Astorga has largely fallen into obscurity, but I can’t imagine why. There are more than 150 known works of his in existence, and his life was operatic in scope – a noble birth, attempted murder of his mother, his father executed for treason, adventures under an assumed name, a wife less than half his age whom he abandoned with three small children.  A 19th century fascination with d’Astorga led one J.J. Abert to compose an opera in 1866 – aptly named Astorga – that further embellished an already colorful story.

All of this is an aside, however, to what is a beautiful setting of the Stabat Mater text. Real life grief takes many forms, of course, and none is ever elegant, as is the music that accompanies Mary’s grief in so many of the Stabat Mater settings I have heard. I am reminded of the equally elegant Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber accompanying the horrifying war scenes in the film Platoon. The disconnect is jarring, but perhaps there is a message for us in those things which seem irreconcilable, I don’t know.

Whatever the musical language, d’Astorga’s work is the story of Good Friday, seen through Mary’s eyes. Would any of us have been able to stand with her at the foot of that cross, knowing that we couldn’t do anything to stop the violence inflicted on her son? All we can do sometimes is bear witness to someone’s pain and hold some part of it in our heart. Compassion – to understand another’s pain – has its roots in the Latin word for suffering, passio. We hear the Passion narrative read on Good Friday, but I believe experiencing the crucifixion through Mary’s eyes in the Stabat Mater, and suffering with Mary, causes us to have even greater compassion, and our world could use more of that.

 

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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.

Attendite

O vos ómnes qui transítis per víam, atténdite et vidéte:
Si est dólor símilis sícut dólor méus.
Atténdite, univérsi pópuli, et vidéte dolórem méum.
Si est dólor símilis sícut dólor méus.

Translation:
O all you who walk by on the road, pay attention and see:
if there be any sorrow like my sorrow.
Pay attention, all people, and look at my sorrow:
if there be any sorrow like my sorrow.

These words from the Book of Lamentations will be sung in many churches this Holy Week, and were set to music  in the 16th and 17th centuries by Tomas Luis de Victoria and Carlo Gesualdo, and in 1932 by the Catalan cellist Pablo Casals. I hear in those musical settings the bewilderment of someone who wonders how people can walk by without seeing the suffering of someone so near. The words and music urge us to pay attention to another’s pain. Attendite.

Attention must be paid.

There’s some irony in the fact that this line was written by Arthur Miller in his Death of a Salesman. Miller, apparently, didn’t pay a lot of attention to the suffering in his own family – treating one wife with vindictiveness and abandoning his son, who had been born with Downs Syndrome. But he did write it, and the play’s line arrests the listener. Pay attention to another’s suffering, Willy Loman’s wife insists.

I have been lucky enough to see, twice now, a compelling production of Stephen Sondheim’s 1990 show Assassins, staged by the fabulous Theater Latte Da in Minneapolis. Something of a flop when it first opened, Assassins couldn’t be more timely now, with its storyline about America’s fascination with guns and the cultural phenomenon of people seeking to gain attention by shooting people. It brings together all of those in American history who have attempted or succeeded in assassinating a President, and we see the delusions and confusion that lead them to their ill-conceived actions. We aren’t ever asked to have sympathy for them, but we do glimpse their primary motivation. From John Wilkes Booth to Squeaky Fromme to Lee Harvey Oswald, it seems always to be the same – a need to be important, to matter, a need for attention.

Attention must be paid.

John Wilkes Booth quotes this line directly to the audience near the end of the show. We are left to wonder… if a friend, or a father, or an employer, or a society had paid attention, could history have been different?

If you’re not outraged then you’re not paying attention

That was a popular bumper sticker some years ago. Right now, in 2018 America, when I pay attention to the big picture I am constantly outraged, and I have to admit that is as depressing and wearying as it is overwhelming. The words of Good Friday’s O vos omnes remind me, however, to pay attention to those right around me. Those that I might otherwise walk by.

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.

 

Introspection

Bach shifts to G minor for the first time in Goldberg’s 15th variation, after 14 previous variations in sunny G major.  A minor key does not automatically mean “now we’re sad” in music, but there’s no doubt that Bach has moved from the external, wide-armed optimism of what came before to withdrawn introspection in this variation.

Goldberg Variations, 15 (Introspective)

It is composed as a canon at the fifth, that most open of intervals, confusing our ear with an inconclusiveness that begs to be filled in with an orienting major or minor third.  There is an openness between this variation’s imitative musical lines which invites introspective self-reflection.

Glenn Gould, the great Canadian pianist whose intimacy with The Goldberg Variations gives authority to anything he has said about them, regarded this particular variation as “the most severe and rigorous and beautiful canon.  It’s a piece so moving, so anguished—and so uplifting at the same time— I’ve always thought of Variation 15 as the perfect Good Friday spell.” While we are nearly two weeks removed from Good Friday in liturgical time, we are never really very far from Good Friday in the reality of life’s suffering.

Which is why we petition God, in one of the Episcopal Church’s most beautiful prayers, said during Compline, to “shield the joyous.”  But I digress.

Look inside. What do you see? Some branches of philosophy tell us that what we see – i.e. whatever our consciousness tells us we are experiencing – is true. Indeed, that those observations are infallible, because they can’t be proven untrue! Feelings of happiness, sadness, anger, distress, embarrassment, concern…those are all easy enough to determine for ourselves. Most of the time we don’t have to look very far inside to diagnose how we’re feeling. We just know.

But look a little deeper. What about feelings of jealousy, shame, disconnection? What about those prejudices and biases lurking behind our actions and ideas? How much time do we spend observing others, gauging their emotional state by their words and gestures, judging the actions of others without doing the same for ourselves? Look inside even more deeply. Is that hypocrisy hiding out in the corner? Could smugness and self-satisfaction be covering up bits of racism or gender bias? Does conviction mask cruelty?

Ugh, spending time introspectively could get uncomfortable. As in all things, however, the truth sets us free.  Admitting hypocrisy or smugness clears the way for change. Self-deception, we might discover, cloaks some things worth uncovering, such as our ability to be kind, the potential to be generous in our assumptions, and just as important (more so even?), our worthiness to be loved.

Peace,
Sonya


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 given to me on January 5, 2016.