Song of the Universal

This is a time of year when we think most about universal themes – things like hope and peace and those things which bring people together, like singing carols or gathering around a meal.  The “feel good” quality of a “happy holidays!” greeting might seem cheesy and superficial, but maybe it’s also a tiny step towards living into those universal songs of hope and peace.

This is a piece I’ve gotten to live with these past few months as one of the choirs I work with learned it for their concerts a few weeks ago. Norwegian composer Ola Gjeillo found his inspiration in the words of American poet Walt Whitman, and wrote about his chosen text: “I love the unabashed optimism, exuberance and his unwavering confidence in our deeper humanity – all through the prism of a big, warm, beating heart.”

Gjeillo sets part of Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”:

COME, said the Muse,

Sing me a song no poet yet has chanted, Sing me the Universal.

In this broad Earth of ours,
Amid the measureless grossness and the slag, Enclosed and safe within its central heart, Nestles the seed Perfection.

By every life a share, or more or less,
None born but it is born—conceal’d or unconceal’d, the seed is waiting.

Give me, O God, to sing that thought!
Give me—give him or her I love, this quenchless faith
In Thy ensemble. Whatever else withheld, withhold not from us, Belief in plan of Thee enclosed in Time and Space;
Health, peace, salvation universal.

All, all for Immortality!
Love, like the light, silently wrapping all!
Nature’s amelioration blessing all!
The blossoms, fruits of ages—orchards divine and certain; Forms, objects, growths, humanities, to spiritual Images ripening.

So wonderful to think about the possibility of the “seed Perfection” nestling with the “grossness and slag,” but one of the poem’s lines, not set by Gjeillo, is the anthem I want to sing in 2019:

“Only the good is universal.”

What a leap of faith, amidst so much pain and turmoil in our world, to think of misery as fleeting and that which is good as what will last.

Maybe it seems cheesy and superficial to approach the new year with the exuberance and confidence in our deeper humanity that Gjeillo and Whitman want us to feel, but it is the only step I know how to take towards living into the universal songs of hope and peace that our world needs to be singing.

Happy New Year!

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.

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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