Prepositions

I spent a lovely afternoon last week with a new friend, watching her play the sport of curling, a game which might be likened to croquet on ice – beer kegs and Viking costumes (it was Winter Carnival time!) notwithstanding. While I can’t begin to pretend that I understood any of the rules, I enjoyed observing the sociability and obvious good sportsmanship of the players, and I was made to feel very welcome.

Just like the Episcopal church, right? Lots of rules, not always comprehensible, but good sportsmanship is usually on display, and there is, ideally, a genuine sense of welcome extended towards those who don’t necessarily understand all the rules.

Who else cares about rules as much as Episcopalians?  Grammarians! In the great Venn diagram of life, there is probably a fair amount of overlap between the two. Episcopalians follow a calendar with very specific ways of describing the liturgical seasons which shape the year. We are coming to the end of the season after the Epiphany, having celebrated a month ago the Sundays of Christmas.  Following Ash Wednesday on February 14, we’ll find ourselves living in Lent, before moving into the week of Easter and then the Sundays after Easter, finally wrapping up the liturgical year with lots of Sundays after Pentecost, until we return to the Sundays of Advent.

Prepositions are small but mighty. They tell of location in one way or another – in time (before, during), of place (above, between), our state of mind (for, against). These three on our calendar – in, of, after – suggest three ways of experiencing a well-lived life to me: fully in the moment, as part of a community, seeing life through a lens of before and after the experiences which have the capacity to change us.

Rules are an important part of civil society, of living together in our families and communities of every kind. When rules trump love?  Then there’s a problem, and that is when it’s good to remember this advice:

Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.   Pablo Picasso

musical-instruments-1912

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.

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

Evensong

Maybe the Anglican service of Evensong seems frivolous, in light of the needs and suffering in this world. Attending Evensong is an interior experience, one that is personal and private. It’s also a labor-intensive service, musically rich, but seemingly passive for the congregation. A few weeks ago, a sermon (during Eucharist, not Evensong, which rarely includes a sermon) about the power of gentleness to change our culture of violence made me think, however, that it’s not so frivolous after all to spend a few minutes exploring what makes this gentlest of worship experiences, Evensong, continue to be an important part of our tradition.

In fact, it was suggested to me that I write something about Evensong and expand on it a bit in relation to a class being taught this fall to people who are interested in learning more about the Episcopal Church.  This uniquely Anglican/Episcopal experience, nurtured in just a few churches these days, is intended to be part of a daily spiritual practice, one which is part of a centuries-old tradition of having prayers said and sung on your behalf, much as monks and nuns have done in their daily services for even more centuries.

In this country very few people these days, no surprise, make the time for, or have access to, a daily service of Evensong. In the U.K. it’s a different story. Cathedral worship, and Evensong in particular, has been where the Anglican church sees growth, particularly among a younger generation who are finding meaning in mystery. One British study showed an increase of 60% in Evensong attendance in the past decade. Read more. We are fortunate in this area to have Washington National Cathedral’s daily offering of Evensong, and several other churches with weekly or monthly choral Evensong as well.

The choir’s music during Evensong is as much prayer as any spoken words and the prayers of Evensong become part of the fabric of the building. I think people can sense those prayers, soaked into the walls, when they walk into a church or cathedral. Whether spoken or sung, these are prayers which become part of the gentleness we send out into the world.

In 2013, while on sabbatical, I attended Evensong twelve times in seven different churches or cathedrals. For me, these were chances to experience glorious music written for God, sung beautifully by well-rehearsed choirs as part of a liturgy and not in performance. While I simply listened, I worshiped. I was able to absorb the beauty of the architecture around me, admire the composers’ craft, and appreciate the shape that liturgy takes in the hands of organists who have practiced many long hours.  I even failed to notice the vergers (this is a good thing) who work to make liturgy appear seamless.

On a good day liturgy can come together to create flow – a psychological term that describes a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of an activity. In this case, the activity for me was participating in liturgy as a listener. I think sometimes we get so caught up in doing, and I am grateful for those times when I’m allowed to just be. That is what Evensong promises.

In the Episcopal Church our faith is expressed in words and symbols, in music and banners, in architecture and vestments. All of our senses will be engaged when worship is done well. But most important, our faith is expressed in the joy that radiates from each of us when we truly experience God in worship. The Episcopal Church has given us all a gift with Evensong, a way to absorb God’s gifts of beauty, to participate in corporate prayers, and to celebrate God’s transcendence.

Peace,
Sonya

 

Traditional

There is such beauty to be found in the traditions that connect us to other times and places, and as people who worship in a traditional setting, there can be an energy which comes from being rooted in the past – rooted in sound theology, and in liturgy and music that soars and take us along to a more glorious understanding of God. When done well, we can be nourished by the traditions our forebears created to worship God within the framework of a liturgy which speaks for a community rather than individuals.

When we care enough, we aspire to live into those traditions, whether that means decorating for Christmas or saying “The Lord’s Prayer.” The acolytes learn to carry the cross and torches with care and dignity.  Lay readers demonstrate that they’ve rehearsed their readings at home, often bringing a real sense of drama and wonder to the lessons.  And hearing and singing the great hymns and anthems of the Anglican tradition, as well as music from other traditions, will be something that stays with children throughout their lives. I’ve seen proof of that in talking to former Choristers.  Junk food can be fun, and temporarily tasty, but nourishment comes from real food, and if you’ve read anything about nutrition lately, you know that traditional grains and ways of cooking are back!

I subscribe to a listserv for choral directors on which there is periodic chatter around the appropriate use of spirituals in “white” churches. I used to follow the talk with some bemusement as I wondered how people could still worry about this in 21st century America, but recent events and political discourse have changed bemusement to concern. In one instance, a minister had emailed his musician (you see the problem already – email is never the way to discuss a problem) to say that he was disturbed by the published anthem schedule, which included a spiritual.  The minister didn’t believe a “white” church choir could sing African-American music in an authentic way, and seemed to be skeptical of singing in African-American dialect – Ain’a dat good news, for example.

There is a tradition to uphold, however, in the dialect which grew out of slavery. We honor something good that came out of the darkest part of American history, when we sing in dialect, which, by the way, is an integral part of the music, servings the music’s rhythms so beautifully. I can’t imagine wanting to iron out the dialect of spirituals to make it more acceptable to modern ears. I believe singing spirituals in dialect provides a sense of the historical and cultural context from which these songs spring, and a profound respect for the suffering and inequalities they represent.

And yet, I too have experienced the quick judgements of singers and congregations who suggest that largely white choirs shouldn’t sing music from the African-American tradition. I find that embarrassing. Not to be “white” (well, I’m actually kind of beige), but to think that somehow people believe that this music doesn’t belong to us.  In that case I would have to question whether or not a “black” church should ever sing Handel or Mozart. Spirituals and Gospel music are good. Bach and Tallis are good.  And all good things belong to everybody. We won’t excel at every tradition, but there is joy in trying.

The printed words of Ain’t got time to die , sung this Sunday at St. John’s, will embarrass some folks, but in singing them we are honoring a tradition. It is a tradition of strength and resilience, of indomitable spirit and creativity. We sing and hear the words of African-American spirituals, and we are more deeply connected to another time and place, as we are when we sing the hymns of Martin Luther, the motets of Palestrina, the folk tunes of the Shakers and the resistance songs of South Africans.

Peace,
Sonya

A Life in Three Parts

We often think of things in threes. Rock, paper, scissors…primary colors…Father, Son and Holy Spirit…youth, middle age, old age.  I had the good fortune to spend a week at The Chautauqua Institution in western New York this summer, and among the many wonderful speakers I heard, two spoke about a three-part progression in our quest for a life of purpose:

San Francisco chef and food justice activist, Bryant Terry, who is chef-in-residence at the Museum of the African Diaspora, believes that we must “start with the visceral to ignite the cerebral and end with the political.”  He talked of the smells and sounds of his grandmother’s kitchen as transformational, emotionally connective experiences which inspired his advocacy for food justice to help people gain information about and access to healthy food. His movement from visceral through cerebral to political is inspiring and this YouTube video gives you a glimpse: Urban Organic

That same day I heard a porch talk (Chautauqua is place where books and conversations are continuously savored on one porch or another) by author Sherrie Flick, who brought her own three-part perspective to how we might shape our lives.  She talked about developing our creativity in ways which open us up to feel more empathy for others. Not sympathy, but a heightened ability to listen to others without judging, something which just might push us a step further into a movement of contagious empathy. Those kinds of sweeping cultural shifts which reveal to us our common humanity in places where we might previously have only seen differences.  Gender equality.  LGBT rights. Black Lives Matter. DACA.  Flick’s article on this will appear later this fall in Creative Nonfiction.

There is an oft-quoted mantra for church musicians who take their work seriously which defines a church musician as a pastor, a teacher, and a musician. In that order, so Eric Routley, who wrote about these three roles of the church musician, adamantly insisted. It’s parallel to the three-legged stool Anglican theologian Richard Hooker outlined – scripture, tradition and reason. And others have talked about another three-legged stool – a Sunday morning version in which liturgy, music and preaching share the weight.

As we know, it’s an unsteady seat when one of the legs is longer, and for 35 years of working as a church musician I have tried to keep the three legs of my work equally balanced. I can’t imagine how one exists without the other in fact. I can’t teach if I don’t continue to develop my own musicianship. I can’t lead people musically if I haven’t addressed their pastoral concerns in one way or another, and as a pastor I try to teach (or model) the behaviors and skills that will inform the music – e.g. caring enough about the value of music in liturgy and spiritual growth to rehearse and prepare it properly, all in the name of offering God the very best of ourselves. Of course, let’s be honest, leading choirs can sometimes be a three-ring circus instead of a three-legged stool!

One more three-part lesson to share with you.  I have become devoted to my practice of yoga the past few years and one day the teacher I work with most often used a set of three words several times during class.  The Hindu half of me felt an East meets West moment as she urged us to think of our bodies sinking into the earth while the wind of our breath moved through our bodies and our minds became as open and light-filled as the sky.  Throughout class that day she simply said:

Sky…Earth…Wind

But what I heard was:

Father…Son…Holy Spirit

And sometimes she said:

Mind…Body…Breath

And a three-part prayer formed: May we strive to know the mind of God, as we become the body of Christ and notice more often the moving breath of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Peace.  Namaste.  Amen.

Sonya

 

 

 

Evensong

During a recent time of transition, as I questioned so much about my vocation, I realized that I was attending the Anglican service of Evensong quite often. Christ Church (Georgetown), St. Francis (Potomac), St. Thomas (Fifth Avenue, NYC), Washington National Cathedral and Christ Church Christiana Hundred (Delaware) became scenes of gentle healing, much needed and quietly strengthening.  For the uninitiated, Evensong is that afternoon offering to our ears, hearts and minds of prayers sung by a choir on the listener’s behalf.

I recalled that during a sabbatical in 2013 I had attended Evensong twelve times in seven different churches or cathedrals over a 3 month period. I was inspired by the most glorious music, written for God, sung beautifully by well-rehearsed choirs as part of a liturgy.  Not a performance, but performed well. While I simply listened, I worshiped. I was able to absorb the beauty of the architecture around me, admire the composers’ craft, and appreciate the shape that liturgy takes in the hands of musicians who have practiced many long hours. On a good day liturgy can come together to create flow – a psychological term that describes a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of an activity. In this case, the activity for me was participating in liturgy as a listener.

Recently, I pulled Gail Godwin’s 1999 novel, Evensong, off the shelf to re-read. I’ve always loved her writing with its artful descriptions of simple joys and complex emotions. She intimately knows the Episcopal church, and writes perceptively about the broken people who are all around us. Who are us.  In Evensong she writes about those living in and passing through a small North Carolina town. Each character in some way has been abandoned, mostly by a parent or spouse, but also by their friends, schools, and yes, even their churches. I hadn’t noticed this theme the first time I read the book, but it was quietly apparent this time around.  God hadn’t abandoned any of Godwin’s characters, of course, but each sometimes felt alone in their earthly abandoned states.  And it would be unrealistic to think you might not question whatever grains of faith you had during those times.

“I’m beginning to think that the times when you lose your faith are the times of your deepest blessing. . . . It is the dark night of the soul. The mystics have written about it. You’re at your very lowest, you have no further to fall, everything is dark and then you can kind of be quiet and see what is speaking to you out of the darkness. . . . I would be more worried about the person who never lost her faith.” — Gail Godwin, from an interview in 1999.

I don’t think anyone feels particularly blessed in their aloneness, but perhaps that is the gift of Evensong. Finding an understanding of the difference between loneliness and aloneness, you can be quiet…experience what is speaking to you out of the darkness, and actively listen for wisdom, reminding you that you are not alone after.

The traditional canticles sung during Evensong are Mary’s Magnificat and Simeon’s Nunc dimittis. The link below is to one of my favorite settings, by Tudor court composer Orlando Gibbons.  Both Mary and Simeon are alone in their prayers, speaking to God in the darkness…and listening.

Peace,

Sonya


Where I’ll be:

May 22, May 29 and June 5 – organist/choir director for the 9:00 am, 11:15 am and 5:00 pm service at St. John’s, Norwood, 6701 Wisconsin Avenue, Chevy Chase, Maryland.  Experienced choral singers who would like sing with the choir there, come at 10:30 for rehearsal before the service.

May 31, June 2 and June 6 – performances of Brahms’ Requiem with the World Bank/IMF Chorus and orchestra, 1:00 pm each of these dates.  United Church (G and 20th) on May 31.  For performances at the World Bank (June 2) and IMF (June 6) visitors will need to get free passes by contacting worldbankimfchorus@gmail.com and allow a few extra minutes to get through the security checks at these institutions.

June 12 through August 14 – organist/choir director for the 10:00 am and 5:00 pm services at St. John’s, Norwood.  Come and sing with the Summer Choir there.  9:15 am rehearsal.

* * * * *

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.