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.

Why Bother?

(from November, 2011 and July, 2014 posts)

I remember going into a church some time ago as a woman was putting finishing touches on the altar’s flower arrangements. I made a few admiring comments and she said that her purpose had been to recall the blood of martyrs by using the dramatic streaks of red gladiolus I was seeing, in honor of Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, whose feast day it was that day and for Saints Peter and Paul, whose feast day was to come two days later.

Well, I’m sure you would have made that connection right away, but I admit it eluded me at first glance. Having read a charming book called The Language of Flowers (an enjoyable beach read), I knew that flowers carry symbolic meanings for some, and that in the language of flowers the gladiolus represents strength of character and honor.  Would anyone else seeing those flowers have all those bits of knowledge at hand?  Irenaeus….symbolic meaning of flowers… Probably not, but does that matter?  Not at all, in my opinion. Our days are filled with small connections and invisible acts that enrich our lives without us even realizing it.

Several years ago I wondered aloud with a colleague why I put so much thought into hymn choices, making key relationships with prelude and postlude music, thinking about meters for walking hymns and texts that are theologically sound, on top of relating the hymns to readings and liturgical seasons. He assured me that the flow of the liturgy was enhanced and appreciated in ways that no one would ever be able to verbalize, and I took that heart.  I remember now a conversation with another colleague about Evensong and other Daily Offices, and the comfort she found in simply knowing that prayers and music have been sung in cathedrals and monasteries on our behalf for many hundreds of years. Swirling around us at any given time is an invisible world of prayers and intentions.

I am reminded of something I heard years ago about The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, directed by Peter Jackson. He insisted that the miniature sets being created to simulate some parts of the Middle Earth be constructed so that even the backs of the sets – the parts never seen by an audience – were as completely and authentically built as the parts that would be seen on film.  And I read somewhere that Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling created many more characters and events for her stories than ever made it into the series’ seven books.  A whole world beyond what was on the page somehow lurked behind what we were reading and made the experience all the more rich.

We may not ever be aware of the unheard thoughts – red flowers, a prelude in C minor before a hymn in Eb Major, characters that didn’t make it to the page – that thread through our lives, but that doesn’t diminish their value. I appreciate those moments of subtlety versus conspicuousness, humility versus flamboyance, poetry versus prose. Every day we might remind ourselves that the uncelebrated work of our lives still carries a beauty and importance about it.  Kindness, joy, friendship, faith…these are the often unheralded things which create a richly led life.

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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.

This

Sometimes a small word says a lot. Love. Help. Sorry. Less serious, but equally useful in their economy, are those words which each generation creates or re-purposes.  From my childhood, words like neat! and psych! Or more recently, dis, and currently, woke

This.

I started seeing it on Facebook I think. A four letter word that expresses a wide-armed embrace of all that is wonderful about a specific moment. Someone would write “This,” coupled with a photo, video or story of some kind that encapsulated a significant facet of human life. I’m not exactly on the cutting edge of popular culture, so perhaps this has already reverted to its normal usage – but it’s a word which says exactly what I want to say when I think about a choral piece I was introduced to last summer.

Take a listen to Jonathan Dove’s setting of Matthew 25:  Come, you who are blest   (this link will take you to a video that was posted on Facebook by the choir’s conductor)

The music was commissioned by a choir I was singing with last summer on their U.K. tour, and the recording of us was made by a fellow traveler seated in the nave of Bristol Cathedral. We went on to sing the piece at Westminster Abbey the following week, with the composer in attendance. Hard to know which part of that scenario was the most exciting – the music? the setting? the wall of sound this particular choir could create? having the piece’s British composer listening to what was almost certainly a U.K. premiere of his piece? But one word sums up what I felt when I was singing it, and what I feel even now when I hear the recording:

This.

I hope you take the time to notice your own “this” moments.

PS – Dove’s piece will be sung this Sunday at Church of the Epiphany, a place which lives more fully into the music’s text than any other church I’ve experienced:

Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;  for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.

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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.

Veni Emmanuel

In the Christian church, the new year – the liturgical year – begins this coming Sunday with a four week journey known as Advent. It’s often described as a time of waiting, watching, and hoping, and a season when we might try to quiet our minds in the midst of the chaos around us, but living in a state of anticipation and also with a quiet mind seem to be at odds with each other. Somehow we have to accept that Advent is a season of duality. A time of joy and penance, beginnings and end times, the comfort of God’s word and the discomfort of the prophets’ messages, images of light and darkness.

I love the hymns of Advent, and no hymn better captures the two sides of Advent than O come, o come Emmanuel, sometimes known by its Latin name, Veni emmanuel. Its text is built on the ancient words of the “O Antiphons” which were sung before and after the chanting of Mary’s Magnificat in the seven days preceding Christmas Eve (hence the dates you see before each verse). Mourning in lonely exile (vs 1), we’re asked in the refrain to “Rejoice!”

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, the first line of the Magnificat, is Mary’s brave response to God’s plan for her to have a child, one who will be both human and divine.

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Each verse of Veni Emmanuel (#56 in The Hymnal 1982) begins with a salutation, in the form of a name for God, and then an invitation for each of these aspects of God to come into our lives. An invitation is meaningless, of course, unless the door has been left open, so don’t sing this beautiful hymn unless your heart is open to change!

O Sapienta (v. 2)  O come, wisdom, and show us a path towards knowledge

O Adonai (v. 3) O come, Lord of might, and with an outstretched arm, save us

O Radix Jesse (v. 4)  O come, branch of Jesse’s tree, and be a sign of God’s love

O Clavis David  (v. 5)  O come, Key of David, and open the gates of life and set us free

O Oriens (v. 6)   O come, Radiant Light, and shine on those who sit in darkness

O Rex gentium (v. 7)   O come, King of all people, and end our sad divisions

O Emmanuel  (vss 1 and 8)  O come, Emmanuel, and dwell among us

In the complexity of this life, may we discover truth somewhere in the middle of all the dichotomies of Advent. Anticipation and peacefulness. Questions and answers. Joy and penance. Comfort and discomfort. And in all of that, may it be a journey towards light and rebirth, a triumph of dreams and hopes over our knowledge of life’s dark places.

Veni Emmanuel,

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 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.

Commuting in America

One of my favorite parts of my week is the walk I take every Wednesday from the church where I am working at 13th and G Street to the church where I have a  midday rehearsal at 20th and G Street. That would seem like a pretty straight shot along seven blocks of a single street, but nothing is quite so simple when you travel around the city of Washington D.C.

My route is bisected diagonally by Pennsylvania Avenue, and that takes me past the house at 1600 every week. Being a veteran Washingtonian of more than 30 years now, I am too cool, of course, to gawk at The White House, but the house itself is the least interesting thing along my commute. That long stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue, with Lafayette Square on one side, and a wide swath of pavement that was blocked off from cars more than a decade ago, beckons people from every state and continent. Musicians playing everything from rock guitar to smooth saxophone to mountain tunes on the harmonica.  Camera-wielding tourists, families, and people in wheelchairs. Evangelists for their own brand of God’s good news, and protestors of causes I didn’t even know existed. People who have created memorials for those lost at war or for lives wasted by gun violence. Men in well-pressed suits zipping by on scooters, briefcases in hand, weaving around strollers and the very obvious security guards, who stand seemingly at ease, but clearly attuned to everything and everyone around them.

Of all that I’ve seen on my Wednesday pedestrian commutes, the best so far has been a group of men in robes and large white hats. From a distance I feared a gathering of the KKK, but getting closer I saw that these were dark-skinned men who held signs proclaiming themselves to be Moors. It wasn’t clear what they were protesting, but if their goal was to let the world know that the Moors still live, they succeeded with me. Did you know there are still people who identify as Moors today?

There are always lessons to be learned, and I love my few minutes every week of seeing the world gathered, sometimes to gawk and sometimes to proclaim. We can’t know if the residents of The White House are observing anything that happens outside their windows, but I find hope in what I see – community, curiosity, diversity…and street musicians! As we look forward to Thanksgiving next week I am grateful to witness America on that stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s colorful and messy and so very beautiful in its openness to all sorts and conditions.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson and T.S. Eliot, among many others, have quotes attributed to them about the journey mattering more than the destination. They remind us that transient moments have value and enrich our lives. That the journey itself can bring happiness. I certainly feel that on Wednesday afternoons.

Reaching a destination suggests an ending, but as every musician knows, the journey is all we have. We will never reach a musical destination because we know that something could always be better – a phrase more beautifully shaped, an emotion more clearly expressed, or a technical passage more perfectly executed. I think that’s probably true for every part of our lives. We’re all works in progress, so why not appreciate the commute as a welcome part of life.

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 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.

 

 

Armistice

A century of human existence and memories since the end of the war to end all wars. Sigh…if only World War I could have reached that implausible goal. The eleventh hour of the eleventh day in the eleventh month in 1918 marked the armistice that was really only a temporary end to the fighting. As history showed, an actual treaty wasn’t signed for another seven months and unresolved anger smoldered for nearly twenty years more before erupting into another world war. A somber world does mark this centenary, however, and my mind went to an unlikely musical commemoration of World War I – Maurice Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin.

This is an elegant set of six pieces which takes its cue from Baroque keyboard suites, with many of the movements based on archaic folk dances. It was written between 1914-1917, published in 1918 and premiered in 1919, with each movement dedicated to a friend of Ravel’s who had died in the war. Ravel himself served as a driver in support of the troops near Verdun and was eyewitness to war’s harrowing brutality, an experience which unsurprisingly left him ill and depressed.

But this is not music of war. It’s charming and dance-like. A suite of piano pieces, later orchestrated, based on the ideals of an earlier time, ideals of gentility and gracefulness. Ravel’s musical response to horror might seem incongruous, more escape than commemoration. Where is the anguish or anger heard in other composer’s works? Vaughan Williams captured such a sense of aching loss in his post-war music, others such as Elgar and Parry sought to inspire and console their broken countrymen.  Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck, begun in 1914, reveals the absurdity and doom of a pointless war.

So how does Le Tombeau de Couperin, a composition inspired by music from two centuries earlier, speak to the pain of living through the destruction and death he was seeing all around him? This is music of color and even of joy. When asked about this seeming paradox, Ravel replied, “The dead are sad enough in their eternal silence.”

Everyone mourns in their own way, and grief takes many forms. Much of Ravel’s music could be considered somewhat emotionally detached. Perhaps he found solace in approaching grief from some distance, and there was so much to mourn. Deaths of young friends, destruction of the French countryside turned into battlefields, and what may have seemed at the time like the end of French culture and civility.  And so he wrote a tombeau for all of those things – for his friends as much as for the elegance and order that the music of Couperin represented. He would leave it to other composers to express their grief and loss in more graphic terms.

Ravel instead chose to write music of memory. Perhaps he had moved beyond the stages of denial and anger and depression to a place of acceptance. Perhaps he needed to counter inexplicable ugliness and cruelty with the light and beauty of ancient dances. Perhaps he knew that an armistice is, like everything, only temporary, and chose not to dwell in hopelessness.

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 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.

 

Ordinary Saints

All Saints Day 2018

The optimists among us would like to believe there is good in everyone, but let’s be honest – not everyone exhibits the kind of extraordinary holiness and virtue we associate with saints. Not everyone is fearless enough to stand up to those in power or walk among lepers or stand in solidarity with the oppressed.

After someone dies they are often recast in more saintly terms. I always wonder if people said or thought those same kind words that are spoken in eulogies while the person was alive. I know that my own father – a remarkable person in so many ways, but hardly a saint – acquired an aura of saintliness within the family after his death. I would give almost anything to be able to go back in time and express a greater appreciation of him while he was living, but his goodness was of the ordinary kind that isn’t seen without the perspective of time. It was a goodness that provided a safe and loving home, and stayed up late to help with math homework, and drove 500 miles to be with me a month before dying of lung cancer because I was going through a rough patch in my life.

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I could not have been more surprised this past summer when I saw what – or rather, who – stood just above the West Front doors of Westminster Abbey. There, modern day saints are honored in arguably one of the most prominent places in the world. In the very center – Martin Luther King and Oscar Romero (both depicted with children, interestingly). Today, All Saints Day, is their day. A feast day for those exceptional people who have walked among us, whose lives and works changed the world. These were people who helped us see more clearly that God dwells among us and whose faith led them into danger, defiance, and sacrifice.

All Souls Day is tomorrow, November 2, and that is when we have the special intention of remembering those we loved, those ordinary people who happened to be extraordinary to us. No statues, but a liturgical acknowledgement that everyone is important to God and will be welcomed into everlasting life.  All souls, saint or not.

Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush,
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there; I did not die.  (Mary Elizabeth Frye – 1932)

With a Celtic sensibility, these oft-quoted words help us find comfort in ordinary things as we mourn those we cannot see, but who we still long to feel in our lives. Real saints change the world. Ordinary saints change one heart at a time. We need more of both.

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 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.