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

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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 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 Pieta of Music

Samuel Barber’s iconic Adagio for Strings has been called by one author the “Pieta of Music.” It is music which has become our national anthem for mourning, music that expresses collective grief. In his 2010 book, The Saddest Music Ever Written, devoted solely to exploring Barber’s Adagio, author Thomas Larson goes on to say that the music captures for him the “sorrow and pity of tragic death: listening to it, we are Mother Mary come alive – holding the lifeless Christ on our laps, one arm bracing the slumped head, the other offering him to the ages.”   The author places this mission on the piece: “to plumb its listeners’ capacity for grief,” describing it as “music to accompany loss.” Compositionally, as liner notes for a recording by the Emerson String Quartet point out, the sense of “slowed-down time creates an impression of deep feeling that can scarcely be borne, like inexpressible grief.”

Adagio for Strings

And that is music’s role in our lives – to search out feelings in us which cannot be expressed in words alone.  Oscar Wilde wrote:  “music creates for one a past of which one has been ignorant and fills one with a sense of sorrows that have been hidden from one’s tears.” He suggested that music allows us to encounter things, and our emotional reactions to those things, that we didn’t even know about ourselves.

The first time I saw Michelangelo’s Pieta I was travelling alone, wandering through St. Peter’s in Rome, and quite unprepared when I turned a corner and came upon the grieving Mary. I burst into tears. Barber’s Adagio communicates pain as clearly as Michelangelo’s stone.

With the reading of the Passion narrative moved to the end of the Palm Sunday service, there is a thread created which pulls us towards the Holy Week services of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, and connects us to those places of loss and pain that are not expressible in words. Pairing Barber’s music with the reading of the Passion, as we’ll do at St. John’s, will, I hope, help people hear the words in a new and deeper way, giving them access to feelings they have no words for. Perhaps hearing the narrative in a way which makes an Easter resurrection all the more possible.

Peace,
Sonya

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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 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

Tenderness

We can feel tenderness for someone in our lives, treating them with gentle care. We can also have a physical or psychological tenderness within ourselves that is quietly painful when probed. In either case our tenderness make us vulnerable to being hurt. Bach’s 13th Goldberg Variation exquisitely communicates both meanings to me.

Goldberg Variations, 13 (Tenderness)

I am reminded today, Maundy Thursday, about a posting I wrote for a church-sponsored blog in 2009. The ideas I explored then are still things I wonder about today, exposing a vulnerability I’d rather not admit to…which seems like a very good reason to be honest.

Maundy Thursday Musings (revised, first published in 2009)

I am completely devoted to National Public Radio, and have had many so-called “driveway” moments when I was unable to turn off my car radio until I finished listening to a story. One that I will never forget is a story I heard years ago about the Kent State shootings, told from the perspective of several young National Guardsmen who were there that day. As the story spun out, you felt the heat of that May day in 1970, the tension building, the heaviness of the protective gear they were wearing, the taunting of the students, and you began to understand how such an unbelievably horrifying thing could happen. In fact, you began to wonder what you would do in that same situation.

Very possibly I could have been one of the German Christians who didn’t want to see what was going on in 1930’s Germany, but would have simply focused on my family and their needs. Would I have been a silent friend? The kind of person who is worse than an outspoken enemy? I would like to think that I could not sit down to supper with someone and then betray him to a government that was going to kill him, but until I experience everything that led up to that betrayal and lived in that moment, can I really be sure?

Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos, “A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another; as I have loved you.” This is how Jesus explained to his apostles the meaning behind his washing of their feet, and the first word  in Latin gives name to this day on the liturgical calendar, Maundy Thursday.

It’s all so simple. So why is it so hard? This Holy Week commemorates four things: Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, the institution of Eucharist at the last supper, Christ’s vigil in the garden of Gethsemane, and his betrayal by Judas to the Roman soldiers. The first three of those events are reenacted throughout the Christian church today. I wonder if we don’t all live into that fourth event on a regular basis in our daily lives.

Thinking this way is the painful kind of tenderness that holds cowardice up to the light. Maybe, just maybe, if we examine our cowardice, we’ll learn to care for others with more of the other kind of tenderness that loves our neighbors as ourselves.

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.

Joy in Sadness

You’ve probably heard music written in a minor key that ends with a final major chord which lands on the ears like a ray of sunshine coming through the clouds. That kind of moment in music is known as a Picardy third – taking a minor chord and raising the middle note to create a major chord – and it certainly has a place in music-making.  Sadness to cheerfulness.  A happy ending.

Recently, while preparing Bach’s Fantasy and Fugue in G Minor, BWV 542 for a concert, I found myself grinning during a particularly favorite passage near the end of the fugue. I felt such joy shining through the minor key.

Sun through cloudsIt’s not a big step for most of us to think about the possibility of joy coming after sadness goes away.  I think we have a harder time thinking about experiencing joy IN sadness. Not so much finding that the dark clouds have moved away and the sun is back in full force, but those magical times when diffused rays of sun come through the dark clouds.  Perhaps when someone we love has died and we are mourning their loss, yet feeling grateful at the same time that they were ever part of our lives. Or when someone we trust betrays us, feeling fortunate to have new insights into what true friendship looks like in contrast.  Perhaps something doesn’t work out the way we hope, yet we have enough wisdom to find gladness in the possibilities of our future.

In yoga, a set of principles known as niyamas offer the prescription of santosha as a way of finding joy through contentment with what is.  Not what could or should be, but an embrace of the place where we are now.  Dark clouds and all.

I am no Pollyanna about finding rays of sun through the darkest clouds.  It would be unrealistic, not to mention unkind, to expect victims of tragedy to find joy in their pain. Maybe, just maybe, in that case we can find ways to be the diffused light so desperately needed by others in our world.  It seems like very little, yet perhaps we can simply cling to what makes us human by continuing to pursue understanding and beauty.  And that brings me back to Bach’s great fugue in G minor, even ending, as it does, with a Picardy third. 

Here is what this Holy Week holds for me:  playing for a Maundy Thursday service at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, attending the Good Friday service at Washington National Cathedral, and for the first and perhaps only time ever, worshiping  with my husband on Easter Sunday, also at Washington National Cathedral.  Having experienced Holy Week in some sense already this year, I am grateful to learn that I still care about being in church and am gingerly walking my way through the Triduum.

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 to be grateful for.