External Beauty

The value of external beauty?  Well, that’s a twist on the conventional wisdom which prizes inner beauty over the superficial kind. Yet, a member of the so-called “cloud of witnesses” within the Episcopal Church, Phillips Brooks, famously preached on “the sacramental value of external beauty,” and because he was commemorated on the liturgical calendar yesterday I decided to learn more.

Whether or not Phillips Brooks is a familiar name, you know his contribution to hymnody. What follows will read like a sixth grade book report, I’m afraid, but bear with me. Perhaps Brooks has something more to say to us today than an annual rendition of his O Little Town of Bethlehem would lead us to believe.

Briefly Bishop of Massachusetts until his death at 57 in 1893, Brooks is most clearly associated with Trinity Church, Boston, where he is immortalized with no less than five statues, including a particularly cophillips_brooks_by_augustus_saint-gaudens,_trinity_church,_bostonntroversial one by Augustus Saint-Gaudens (known to Washingtonians for his “Grief” statue in Rock Creek Cemetery). During his years of ministry Brooks was known for his opposition to slavery, preaching eloquently upon the death of Abraham Lincoln, and demonstrating a strong lifelong commitment to the cause of African-Americans, with anecdotal evidence of an underground ministry to Boston’s African-American population. He was credited by one biographer of Martin Luther King with having had a major impact on King’s oratory.

Brooks was clearly deeply affected by his travels to the Holy Land, his eyes and heart opened, and so many of his ideas still have resonance in these times:

  1. He inspired the architects and artists who built Trinity Church, Boston to create what one writer called “an American Hagia Sophia”, with a free-standing altar and no choir stalls to detract from the central altar (these things were changed not long after his death), and originally without a pulpit. The purity of the Early Church, real or imagined, was his ideal.
  2. His travels informed not only his architectural ideas, but also his liturgical ones.  He championed congregational singing, together with “thrilling music” and “thrilling incense”.  He believed that worship was more than prayer and praise, and also included preaching, architecture and music. His Puritanical roots were not long behind him and these were radical ideas in 19th century New England.  His first sermon at Trinity was on “the sacramental value of external beauty,” suggesting that God would rather tempt us with beauty than hold us in bondage with fear.
  3. His thinking carried a sense of ecumenism that was emerging in late 19th century America. He was open to the teachings of Catholics, Jews and Muslims, once pointing to similarities between Unitarians and Islam, and writing, “I should dishonor God if I did not believe that Islam has done good”.
  4. His was a voice of reason in the discord between science and religion, saying that “Faith would not suffer, but gain, by every discovery of truth from every science”.  He believed that the “nature of a continually active, formative force is in line with Christianity.”
  5. He was a strong proponent of congregational involvement in liturgy, not to “deny the priesthood of the clergy, but to assert the priesthood of all.”

Dozens of quotes from his writings are easily found at BrainyQuote.com and they are inspirational, words truly to live by. Some of my favorites were:

“Skepticism offers no satisfactory substitute for what it disbelieves.”

Be patient and understanding. Life is too short to be vengeful or malicious.

Christianity helps us face the music, even when we don’t like the tune.

No man or woman can be strong, gentle, pure, and good without the world being better for it, and without someone being helped and comforted by the very existence of that goodness.

More than 100 years after Brooks’ death, with nothing except written words to remind us of his thoughts, someone like me spent hours reading and thinking about a 19th century preacher, and found wisdom in his words. The external beauty he desired in his surroundings was a clear path to the inner beauty our world actually needs. For me, it’s not such a big stretch to Marie Kondo preaching in our current cultural climate about the value of decluttering, teaching the world that to tidy your space is to transform your life.

Peace,

* * * * *

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wakener of the Songbirds

A group of singers I’m working with is preparing a program to sing on tour in France this summer, and one of the presenters of a concert series at a cathedral in southern France saw our program and expressed some concern about it not being entirely “religious.”  We hadn’t intended to put together a program of sacred music, but in fact we had done exactly that…just not music that drew exclusively from Christian texts.

The music in question is Gustav Holst’s Choral Hymns from the Rig-Veda. My group is learning the four movements of Part III of this early 20th century work: Hymn to the Dawn, Hymn to the Waters, Hymn to Vena, and Hymn of the Travellers. It’s not surprising that Holst was so deeply interested in Indian culture.  He was composing, after all, during the central years of the British Raj, and not so many years after Swami Vivekananda had been warmly received in the West with his teachings on Hinduism and interfaith connections, as well introducing Westerners to the practice of yoga.

The name Rig Veda  comes from the Sanskrit words for “praise” and “knowledge.”  I like that.  It seems to me that the goal for any religious tradition should include those two aspects of human needs – the need to acknowledge something larger than ourselves and our desire to try to understand those things which can’t always be explained by science.

Rig Veda, Part III – Gustav Holst

Based on sacred Hindu texts and translated from the original Sanskrit by the British composer himself, Holst drew inspiration from Indian classical music for much of the music he wrote in the first years of the 20th century.  An interest in astrology continued throughout his life and played some role in his most famous work, The Planets. Hinduism’s sacred texts in the Rig Veda  include more than 1,000 poems, composed between 1500 and 1000 B.C. and Holst sets 14 of these for mixed chorus, men’s chorus, orchestra, and in Part III, for women’s voices with harp.

Universal themes abound. In Hymn to the Waters the words speak of the cleansing waters flowing from the firmament, healing all in earth.  In Hymn to Vena we sing of a newborn infant who appears on the summit of creation, proclaiming the glory of our common Father, a healing light rejoicing in radiant splendor. Much like the “O Antiphons” of the medieval Christian church, various names are used here for God: Ensign of the Eternal, Mighty One, Wonder-worker, and my favorite, Wakener of the Songbirds. 

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 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.