Seven

I am preparing a choral piece, new to me and to the choir I’m working with for a few months, and as so often happens, my free-associating mind began with a question that led me to a host of unexpected places. Jonathan Dove’s 1995 work, Seek Him that Maketh the Seven Stars is as mysterious and gorgeous as the night sky. The music alone is enough for me, but I had to ponder the text. Seven stars? The question asked, and I was abruptly dropping down Alice’s rabbit hole, going past all kinds of strange sights associated with the number seven.

It began innocently enough with a quick search of the Pleiades, the seven stars that represent messengers of God in the second chapter of the Bible’s Book of Revelations, and the inspiration for part of Dove’s text. Suddenly my brain was careening past Joseph’s seven years of famine and seven years of plenty, the seven joys of Mary and the seven last words of Jesus, baseball’s seventh inning stretch, marriage’s seven year itch, and the seven colors of the rainbow (remember Roy G. Biv?). Seven days of creation, and seven musical pitches in western music – do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti. But wait, there are also seven pitches in the scales of Indian classical music: Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni SA. Seven chakras in Hinduism’s Vedic texts to guide our bodies’ spiritual, physical and emotional health. Seven years to regenerate every cell in the human body. Seven deadly sins, seven gifts of the spirit.

I was feeling quite dizzy at this point.

Alice’s rabbit hole seemed to end, and I found myself where I had begun. The seven stars known as Pleiades, or Seven Sisters, and Dove’s beautiful piece:

But then I slipped just a bit further, remembering that the one group of stars nearly everyone can identify is the Big Dipper, outlined – do I need to say it? – by seven stars, including Polaris, the North Star.  Follow the Drinking Gourd, a spiritual which gave coded directions to escaping slaves, pointed the way north with its advice to follow that dipper/gourd to freedom. That is the power of seven.

Apparently my trip down this rabbit hole wasn’t quite finished yet. I came upon an a cappella group that is new to me called Naturally 7, and they too demonstrate the power of seven, with their voices creating an orchestra of sounds, and a message in this particular song that still needs to be heard about tearing down walls and finding another kind of freedom.

Seven, a prime number which represents the unity of 1 and the diversity of 7, indivisible by anything else. Seven lamps on the menorah, our weeks made complete by seven sunrises and sunsets, seven stars to guide us on our way.

sonyafirst004

If you’re interested, the choir of Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, Maryland will be singing Dove’s piece during their 10:30 am service on February 2.

Hypocrite!

(Sorry, this is not exactly a gooey Valentine’s Day message)

Among all the things that really, really irritate us, I have a feeling that spotting hypocrisy in others tops the list for a lot of people. Even as children we noticed when the adults in our lives said one thing but did another. We see it in our public leaders, in our spiritual institutions, and in those we love. More than irritating, it’s often angering. So easy to point the finger at hypocritical behaviors and forget, however, that holding to our moral core demands we struggle with our own hypocrisies first.

What does the word’s etymology tell us?  Hypo- , a prefix for “below” or “under” and kreis – a word coming through ancient Greek and Old French which connoted sifting or uncovering.  Its early use in connection with theater gives us a better clue, when actors interpreted the story from beneath their masks. A literal example of being two-faced.

Song provided a place for African-American slaves to point out their owners’ hypocrisy, and they sure had plenty of material there. It probably didn’t take long for enslaved Africans to understand that the Bible, used by white Americans to justify slavery, held many other stories which exposed their owners as the biggest hypocrites of all.

Songs such as Go down Moses and Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel were relatively subtle rebukes of the master’s hypocrisy, as is Lord, I want to be a Christian, but the very word itself pops up in several spirituals. There’s nothing subtle about Little Innocent Lamb when the choir passes the word “hypocrite” from soprano to alto, or the third verse of Let me fly:

Meet that hypocrite on the street
First thing he does is show his teeth.
Next thing he does is to tell a lie
And the best thing to do is to pass him by.

Just let the hypocrite pass by, or call out the hypocrisy? I don’t know, there’s often such a sanctimonious “gotcha” aspect to pointing out someone’s hypocrisy. Perhaps it would be better to put that energy into internal observations of our own self-deceptions instead?

Why do we do it? Why do we decry those things in others that we are also guilty of? Hypocrites are so easily unmasked after all. Maybe I’ll add hypocrisy to my list of things – a list that includes bedbugs, telemarketing calls, and poison ivy – which need to be waved out of existence by my magic wand. The world would certainly be a less irritating place then.

Peace,

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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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Morning and Mourning

(first published December 9, 2010)

The liturgical season of Advent, which began this past Sunday, beautifully mirrors the natural world around us. Plants and animals close in on themselves for a time of hibernation that is ultimately the sustenance needed for renewed vigor. In a similar way Christians are asked to quiet their minds and prepare for Christ’s coming. Images of dark and light abound in the readings and music, just as the light of day is most precious in its contrast to night’s darkness. The duality of Advent is represented as well in the comfort we are encouraged to feel when we hear about a Savior’s birth, contrasting with the discomfort of the prophets’ words. Comfort, comfort…you brood of vipers!

Like the Chinese philosophical concept of yin and yang, the contrary messages of Advent are interdependent.  The anticipation we have for the coming of Christ in the flesh, a baby in a manger, is paired with the coming of Christ at the end of time.  What do we have here, a beginning or an ending? Both?

There is an African-American spiritual that inadvertently reflects two possible mind-sets for this time of year. Taking its inspiration from the Gospel of Matthew 24:29-31*, My Lord, what a morning is sometimes written as My Lord, what a mourning. Slavery’s oral tradition obscures the song’s original meaning, but it isn’t a stretch to imagine that those who first gave voice to spirituals were closer to mourning.

Light and dark. Comforting words and admonitions. The joy of welcoming an infant Savior and the fear of being unprepared for God’s expectations of us. Morning and mourning. Each part of these pairings has something to teach us, but ultimately light, joy, comfort and morning will win, if we so choose.

Peace, Sonya

*Matthew: 24-31 (NRVS)

Immediately after the suffering of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken.  Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.  And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from on end of heaven to the other.

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Where I’ll be:

November 27-January 1– organist/choir director at Christ Episcopal Church, Rockville, Maryland, while their Music Director is recuperating. (www.christchurchrockville.org)

December 14, 7:30 p.m. – concert with Zemer Chai, The Mansion at Strathmore. (http://www.zemerchai.org/upcoming-performances-cr3j)

December 13, 15, 16 – World Bank/IMF Chorus concerts, Magnificats by John Rutter and Johann Pachelbel for choir and orchestra. 1:00 p.m. (www.wbimfchorus.org/news)

December 17, 10:00 – Washington National Cathedral, Bethlehem Prayer Service, simulcast (https://cathedral.org/event/bethlehem-prayer-service)

* * * * *

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.