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.

 

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

* * * * *

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 Moment to Decide

Thou that hast given so much to me
give one thing more, a grateful heart.
Not thankful when it pleaseth me,
as if Thy blessings had spare days —
but such a heart, whose pulse may be Thy praise.

from “Gratefulness” by George Herbert

Cultivating, expressing, and living a life of gratitude are decisions we each make for ourselves. Feeling grateful can come from a place of abundance in our lives, but I have a feeling it comes more often from a place of scarcity, or even despair. Those moments when we are stripped down to a basic level of survival – be that emotional or physical survival – and we somehow summon gratitude for another day, a kindness shown, or even just an awareness that our pain is a sign that we have loved and been loved. These are clear connections with God in a way that lifts us from scarcity to abundance.

Think of all that you are blessed with.  A loving family? Educational opportunities? The chance to travel the world? Material wealth? Good health? Sincere friendships?  Resilience?  Charisma? The possibilities are many.  The best gifts are given without expectation of anything in return, but blessings? Those put us in God’s debt and we do owe something back to the world for our blessings.

President Kennedy, echoing words from Luke 12:48, reminded a prosperous America in 1961: “For of those to whom much is given, much is required.”

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Three people in the past week or so have individually mentioned the same hymn to me. Coincidence?  Holy Spirit?  It comes from The Hymnal 1940, and though I know the tune well (the wonderfully sturdy Welsh tune, supposedly found in a bottle on its rugged coastline…Ton-y-botel), the words were less familiar to me.  I suppose the editorial committee for The Hymnal 1982 couldn’t imagine us singing these words into the 21st century and so it didn’t make the cut:

Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah, off’ring each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever ‘twixt that darkness and that light.

From a poem written to protest the Mexican War and the increased territory for slavery which that war portended, the hymn’s text continues:

Then the brave man chooses, while the coward stands aside till the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied (v. 2), and …toiling up new Calvaries ever with the cross that turns not back; new occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth (v. 3) and in the final verse…Though the cause of evil prosper, yet ’tis truth alone is strong.  

You will find the text in its entirety here. Do you agree that these words have relevance for us in 2017, occasional masculine language notwithstanding? New CalvariesGod’s new Messiah…new occasions teach new duties…new forms of human cruelty and deception, new reasons to strengthen our resolve for truth and justice.

This is bold language, words to shake us from complacency.  Perhaps too directive though, too black and white? But aren’t some things simply wrong? Is every problem shaded in gray? If a simple question were to be asked of any action – does it create more goodwill and love in the world? – would that pull us out of some of life’s gray areas?

Each of us has abundant blessings of one kind or another. Our obligation in turn is to see each decision – even seemingly insignificant ones – as moments to decide ‘twixt that darkness and that light.

With a grateful heart,
Sonya

Found in Translation

Somewhere the original harmony must exist,
hidden somewhere in the vast wilds.
In Earth’s mighty firmament,
in the far reaches of swirling galaxies,
in sunshine,
in a little flower, in the song of a forest,
in the music of a mother’s voice,
or in teardrops – 
somewhere, immortality endures, 
and the original harmony will be found.
How else could it have formed
in human hearts –
music?  

It must be somewhere, the original harmony,
somewhere in great nature, hidden.
Is it in the furious infinite,
in distant stars’ orbits,
is it in the sun’s scorn,
in a tiny flower, in treegossip,
in heartmusic’s mothersong
or in tears?
It must be somewhere, immortality,
somewhere the original harmony must be found:
how else could it infuse
the human soul,
that music?

These are two translations of the poem titled Muusika by Juhan Liiv (1864-1913). Though I think both versions are startlingly beautiful, one of the translators wondered if in fact the poetry has somehow been lost in translation, hoping that the reader would be able to intuit what the translations had lost.  The Estonian language it seems, like all languages, has unique and barely translatable ways of saying things, and I found the comparison of these two translations fascinating. Look at how much is found in Liiv’s words.

The poem came to my attention because of a setting by Estonian composer Pärt Uusberg (b. 1986), which I urge you to listen to here:

Muusika by Part Uusberg

Juhan Liiv was born into the extreme poverty of 19th century serfdom in Estonia. Physically weak and mentally ill, he died from pneumonia after a conductor pushed the ticketless poet off a train, causing him to walk home in freezing weather for two weeks.  Liiv’s hardships, as with so many artists, translated into insightful understandings of the world around him, and his poetry, though often gloomy, expresses great love for his country.

Music – Muusika – is a vital part of Estonian identity, as movingly told in a 2008 film called The Singing Revolution.  As the documentary shows, music played an important role in the largely peaceful protests in 20th century Estonia. Before and after World War II Estonians used a tradition of communal singing to see them through the darkest days of oppression by the Nazis and then the USSR.  Not just as a comfort, but as a subversive way of maintaining their culture and of uniting their people.  The film showed the people of Estonia coming together to sing in ways that ended up thwarting the Soviets’ attempts to force the Estonians to submit to their authority.  I don’t know if the film is available on Netflix, but I recommend trying to find it.

Yet another reminder of the ways that music and poetry connect us across time and space, capturing in sound and words our capacity for wonder and our innate yearning for freedom.

Peace.
Sonya

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Where I’ll be:

June 12 through August 14 – organist/choir director for the 10:00 am and 5:00 pm services at St. John’s (Norwood), 6701 Wisconsin Avenue, Chevy Chase, Maryland. Maybe you’d like to come and sing with the Summer Choir there? 9:15 am rehearsal.

June 13 through 17 – The annual conference of The Association of Anglican Musicians, an organization that has been a source of some of my closest friends, supportive colleagues, and an inspirational reminder of all that is good about The Episcopal Church. We meet this year in Stamford, Connecicut.

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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 to be grateful for.