Myths and Truths

de_grey_hours_f-57-r_st-_nicholasDecember 6 is the day on the church’s calendar when St. Nicholas is celebrated. The myths around this saint from Myra (in present day Turkey) are many.  The bags of gold that he tossed into one home so that the daughters would have dowries and not be sold into prostitution become the origin of the gift-giving tradition we now have at this time of year. He is considered the patron saint of children because one story has Nicholas resurrecting three boys who had been slaughtered during a time of famine and were being prepared to be eaten. And he is credited with saving a ship full of sailors in a storm-tossed sea by calming the waters.  These are tales told in many cultures, and of course all relate directly to Christian theology.  Are they true?  Does it matter?

Where do mystery and reason meet?  One might argue, and certainly Joseph Campbell did so in his book and television series “The Power of Myth,” that they meet in theology, as both mystery and reason attempt, in their own ways, to express truth.  Where does myth end and truth begin?  Do we have to know?  There are many truths that can’t be confined to those things we perceive with our five senses and personally, I have never been hobbled by a need for certainty. I enjoy the universalizing process that any story can lead us through.

The danger of myths that feed our misperceptions about race, about various threats to our safety from vaccines to immigrants…well, that’s a topic for another day. There is a big difference between things we absolutely know to be true (but aren’t), and those things we know aren’t really true, but which we acknowledge still have something to teach us. A very provocative TED Talk takes on this very topic, if you are interested.

What matters, it seems to me, are the universal truths that the story of St. Nicholas expresses – the value of generosity, of helping those in need, and maybe most important at this time of year, being the calm during a storm (the quiet voice during a family argument perhaps? A peaceful presence among harried shoppers or co-workers?). These are truths we all could incorporate into our lives.

Close your eyes and return to your early childhood. Was there anything more wonderful than anticipating the return of that greatest of all myths, St. Nicholas in the guise of a gift-bearing Santa Claus? The evolution of our adult happiness hinges on turning that early eagerness for the gifts of things into a mature appreciation for the gifts of spirit – friendship, time, kindness, and, of course, music.

A gift for you then on this St. Nicholas Day – music by Estonian composer Arvo Part, which includes this text in the third part of his choral work Triodion:Ode III:

O Holy Saint Nicolas, Pray unto God for Us A rule of faith and a model of meekness, a teacher of abstinence hath the reality shewn thee unto thy flock; therewithal hast thou acquired: by humility – greatness, by poverty – riches; O Father hierarch Nicolas, intercede before Christ our God that our souls may be saved.

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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.

 

Chaos

This is not a commentary on current times, political or personal, but rather an examination yet again of finding meaning in unusual places. Of finding beauty in chaos.

It began with”the fairest, goodliest, and most famous parish church in England,” as the church of St. Mary Redcliffe was described by Queen Elizabeth I.  It’s a Gothic masterpiece, found on a busy street in a gritty part of a city that is slowly finding its way out of a slave-trade inheritance to become a cultural incubator of the arts in the 21st century (including a very popular Wallace and Gromit tour). I was there for a few days last month and one of the very few photos that I took was of the accompanying sign to this water-powered pendulum found in St. Mary’s Redcliffe.  The sign reads:St_Mary_Redcliffe_Chaotic_Pendulum,_Bristol

Journey into Science: The St. Mary Redcliffe Chaotic Pendulum.  It goes on to describe the process of water moving through the cross beams, unpredictably tipping one way or another, and likening that unpredictability to the ways of the world.

In this simple machine you are looking at a new frontier in our understanding of the world.  Scientists call it chaos.  Some people look to science for certainties on which to base their lives.  Increasingly we realize our knowledge can never provide certainty, even for this simple machine.  The world is a more wonderful and a more surprising place than we could have imagined.

Chaos suggests a lack of rules and form, but maybe it’s really just describing an unseen structure or set of rules. Perhaps the water’s flow through the pendulum responds to rules that are beyond human imagination, or forms that haven’t been described yet. I have to think that much of our world, including our music, would seem incredibly chaotic to our ancestors, should they be able to visit us in 2018. Yet we are surrounded by patterns, and our music is based on recognizable progressions. Could it be that there is meaning in those things which we aren’t evolved enough yet to understand?

I’ve been spending some time with the piano music of Philip Glass this summer. To the resistant listener, it probably sounds random, with its repetitive patterns and unpredictable shifts. I am not an expert on his music, nor have I spent hours analyzing it, but I’ve found playing it to be a wonderful way to warm up my fingers and center my mind. The difficulties of his music are not the usual ones – playing the notes isn’t hard, but staying focused and negotiating the subtle moves in the music is.

Things which seem completely random and unrelated can still draw someone into an artistic experience. Perhaps because there are patterns that lie below the surface of seeing which speak to a hidden part of our brain. The works of artist Jackson Pollock, for example, have been analyzed using fractal analysis. Could this same process be applied to the music of Glass ? Does the human desire for patterns and repetition draw us even toward those things which might seem chaotic at first glance?

Image property of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY.

I begin working this week as the Interim Music Director at Church of the Epiphany in Washington D.C., and will be there for the next eight months. Church can, at its best, offer an antidote to life’s chaotic moments, don’t you think? I wonder if I’ll learn that the world is indeed a more wonderful and more surprising place than I could have imagined.

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.