Failure

In March of 1832 Frederic Chopin wrote a very polite letter to the concert committee at the Paris Conservatoire, requesting that he be considered for a performance on their concert series. Chopin was artistically lauded by this point in his life, but financially insecure and he really needed the concert fee. The committee turned him down.

I would like to think that the Paris Conservatoire’s committee regretted their decision sometime later! In the same vein, a dozen or so publishing houses rejected the first Harry Potter manuscript and are surely still rueing that decision. History is littered with these kinds of stories, and it’s easy to read about them and marvel at the blindness of decision-makers to real talent. We might shake our heads and chuckle, knowing who got the last laugh, but surely it stung to receive those rejection letters in the first place, and no doubt the recipients had their confidence as artists temporarily shaken.

The beginning of Lent, a liturgical season of penitence in the Christian church which began with Ash Wednesday last week, seems like a great time to think about failure. It’s a season which ends in five weeks with one colossal failure after all – the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Spoiler alert, he gets the last laugh.

Not everyone has the gift of summoning entire worlds of magic from their imagination which can be shared with millions of adoring fans, as Chopin and Rowling have. Nor can we show our friends that we’ve risen from the dead. Most of us are fairly normal, workaday sorts who feel our failures deeply by questioning our self-worth. History probably really doesn’t care about our failures, but we likely wouldn’t take much pleasure anyway in knowing that we might be vindicated by history if we persevere and continue to believe in ourselves in the face of all those rejection letters. Speculating about the future isn’t a great use for our energy, but it is good to remember that success and failure are best measured by time.

Unfortunately, I have to toss in a few platitudes about failure, because they do hold a lot of truth. Those hopeful ideas about failure’s capacity to help us appreciate our successes more, to prepare us for the next time we fail, to show us who our real friends are, and to teach us about humility.

If you are still looking for a Lenten discipline, perhaps examining life’s failures through more discerning eyes will prove useful. Certainly more useful than giving up chocolate, which is a short path to failure for some of us anyway.

Chopin was harshly criticized for failing as an orchestral composer, but any of us would be fortunate to fail so beautifully.

Recent news about Big Pharma’s role in creating opioid addiction reminds me that I have left out an essential aspect of failure – the fact that failure is all too often enabled by people (and their institutions) who act out of malice, fear, greed, ignorance, lack of imagination, or pedantic fussiness (Chopin’s request reached the Paris Conservatoire after their deadline). I have to think that causing someone to fail is far worse than failing itself.

My inspiration today is the new biography of Chopin by Alan Walker. I read his three volume biography of Liszt – twice – over the past decade or so and I knew that the quality of research and his writing would not disappoint. I didn’t know that I would enjoy getting to know Chopin as a person so much or that reading a rejection letter from the Paris Conservatoire would make me so angry on his behalf!

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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.

Breathe

As the Christian church begins a forty day journey through Lent, consider ways to incorporate more chant into your life, whether singing or listening. The quality of breathing which chant requires will carry your prayers more deeply within and further afield at the same time. The two likely beginnings of chant, after all, were as a natural amplification of the voice which allowed words to travel further in large spaces, and as a tool for meditation which combined breath and sound in an effort to internalize sacred words.

Below are two very different chants, both of which move me deeply. Each takes me somewhere else and stops me in the moment at the same time. Each connects me with an ancient wordless longing and also gives me a sense of fullness. Many of you have likely seen the first, a chant from Taize with a text by Teresa of Avila:

Let nothing disturb you,

nothing frighten you,

All things are passing.

God never changes.

But the second one is new to me, shared with me this week by a singer who honored me by saying it made her think of me. I was mesmerized the first time I heard it, almost to the point of forgetting to breathe myself. The text is Psalm 53. The power of their sound has a life-force of its own.

Peace,

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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.

Poets of the Cross

Many describe the Welsh poet and priest R.S. Thomas as a “poet of the cross,” and his poems often include the stark image of an empty cross – or an “untenanted” one, in his words.  His untenanted cross no longer bears death, however, but witnesses life.

There is nothing kind or warm about a cross.  Its power lies in its austerity, like the angular harshness of R.S. Thomas’ poetry, or the Four Motets for a Time of Penitence by Francis Poulenc. Both were reacting to the bleakness of their surrounding landscapes – one evoking the forbidding, lonely existence of Welsh farmers, and the other writing his motets soon after the death of his dearest friend and during the ugliness of European war in the late 1930’s. With an economy of texture and a sense of desperation, Poulenc (uncharacteristically so) and Thomas (inseparably so) cause us to confront those difficult places where the silent cross stands, untenanted and unflinching, waiting until we are ready to receive its strength.

To one kneeling down no word came,
Only the wind’s song, saddening the lips
Of the grave saints, rigid in glass;
Or the dry whisper of unseen wings,
Bats not angels, in the high roof.

Was he balked by silence? He kneeled long
And saw love in a dark crown
Of thorns blazing, and a winter tree
Golden with fruit of a man’s body.  – R.S. Thomas, In a Country Church

Timor et tremor by Francis Poulenc

Fear and trembling have come upon me and darkness has fallen
upon me. Have pity on me, Lord, have pity; because in thee my
soul trusts. Hear, O God, my prayer, because thou art my refuge
and my strong helper. Lord, I have called on thee, I will not
be confounded. (words from the Psalms)

The strange fruit in the poem’s final line is as unsettling as Poulenc’s music in this first of his Lenten motets. Both express passion – a word which we use so freely for our hobbies and loves, but which finds its roots in the Latin for suffering. I feel an emptiness in this music and in these words.  The kind of emptiness that is cleansing.  The kind of emptiness that invites rebirth.

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.

Undone by Donne

One of my favorite hymns to teach young choristers in years past has been Hymn 140 in The Hymnal 1982, and I urge you to take a few minutes to listen to this gorgeous recording. With its plaintive 17th century tune and text by John Donne it was seemingly far beyond their years, and yet somehow always seemed to reach them in that deeper place where children have vast stores of wisdom. It’s also fun to teach them about the play on words in the last line:

Wilt thou forgive that sin, where I begun,
Which is my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive those sins through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done, for I have more.

Donne (1573-1631) had secretly married Ann More against her family’s wishes, causing his dismissal and years of poverty until he became employable again as an Anglican priest in 1615.  “When thou hast Donne, thou hast not Donne, for I have More”. A Hymn to God the Father by John Donne

Ann had died some years before Donne wrote this text, but despite its apparent gloom the text actually conveys a sense of assurance, most clearly in verse 3, while playing on their names once again:

that at my death thy Son shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore.
And having done that, thou hast done, I fear no more.

Donne is quoted as saying: “And, O the power of church-music! that harmony added to this Hymn has raised the affections of my heart, and quickened my graces of zeal and gratitude.”

Might we all, including our children, be so moved by music in the church.

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I’m not sure if the sign is still there, but several years ago when I made a quick visit to Milwaukee I came through airport security to see this:

Recombobulation Area

I don’t know about you, but I’m discombobulated on a regular basis, and the opportunity to pull myself back together after shedding various parts of my attire for airport security was very welcome. In fact, I bet we might all welcome the chance to recombobulate ourselves now and then. Maybe you already have such a place. A yoga class,  hiking, a cup of tea and a book. Could church be one of those places to recombobulate? It’s a place, after all, that asks you to temporarily step away from your normal life, where discombobulation is perhaps not an unusual state of being.  Church, at its best, is a place to sing together, confront difficult issues from moral and theological perspectives, and experience the beauty of God through all five senses. It is a place, ideally, where you are accepted and loved as you are, and given some tools to help you become better than you are now.

I often imagine what someone, completely new to church, might experience during a service. While singing a hymn with an archaic text such as Donne’s for Hymn 140,  I wonder what my unchurched visitor is thinking. Does it seem stuffy and off-putting?  A conversation in my head goes something like this:

“Why do you say thee and thou in church still?” she might ask?

“Because there is a power in being connected by language and thought to past generations of Anglicans/Episcopalians, and because we aren’t afraid to create an experience which takes us away from day to day life and helps us glimpse a more orderly world where ideas and emotions are beautifully and carefully expressed,” I might answer.

Wilt thou forgive that sin?  “I’m not really comfortable talking about sin. It’s such a harsh word, and makes me feel judged.”

“I get that. Words have power, but one of the things I particularly enjoy is looking under the surface for deeper meanings. There’s no basis, as far as I know, for my idea that “sin” is related to the word sine, which is Latin for “without,” but being without a moral compass is my working definition of sin.”

“But where’s the joy and exuberance that unleashes the power of the Holy Spirit in us?” she would then wonder.

And I could reply, “Well, it is Lent, and expressions of joy and exuberance become muted, so that we can then feel their full effects on Easter.  For Episcopalians, it’s almost always about balance.”

Maybe church in general, and Lent in particular, can be times to recombobulate, places to step away from “normal” and reconnect with those deep currents of thought and emotion that keep us…combobulated. I wish that was a real word.

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.