Light

Faith is the bird that feels the light when the dawn is still dark.
(Rabindrinath Tagore)

It’s not too soon to be grateful that days are already lengthening little by little. Even amid the cloudy days of winter we can sense light returning. The morning light appears a little earlier, the afternoon sun stays just a bit longer, and some primal instinct tells us the earth is slowly awakening. The liturgical calendar plants us in the season of Epiphany and gives us themes of light, beginning with the Magi following the light of a star, and ending two months from now with Jesus’ Transfiguration (celebrated on the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday), when the “Light of the world” gave his followers a glimpse of his divine nature, becoming a radiant, light-filled sign of God’s presence while conversing with Moses and Elijah on a mountain.

Light implies movement as well as brightness, moving through time with the speed of light, and when we are light-hearted and light on our feet it suggests buoyancy. Then, too, light is integral to perceptions of color, including defining people as light-skinned. I took some liberty, incidentally, this past Sunday with the beautiful motet of Peter Warlock, Bethlehem Down.  Its gorgeous text refers to Mary’s “white arms,” but we corrected that likely historical inaccuracy to sing about her “warm” arms instead.

But I digress! The Song of Simeon, a canticle taken from the Gospel of Luke which is sung or read as part of the evening office, takes us back to the light of sun and stars. These are the grateful words of an old man upon seeing the infant Jesus and understanding what he holds in his arms:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; To be a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

aert_de_gelder_-_het_loflied_van_simeon

Three ways to be illuminated by Simeon’s words:

Artistically, the ability to capture light, as seen in this 18th century depiction by Aert de Gelder of Simeon with Mary and Jesus, is often considered the mark of a great painter.

It is more difficult to capture light in sound.  Composers might find it in shimmering string sounds, or the clarity of straight-toned high voices, but often a text has to do some of the work.  The final line of Simeon’s prayer  – a light to lighten the Gentiles –  has inspired many, many composers to soar in musical arcs of light. In honor of this week’s celebration of Christmas by the Orthodox Church…Rachmaninoff’s setting of Simeon’s words in the Nunc Dimities from his Vespers:

And finally, Simeon’s story takes poetic flight in T. S. Eliot’s A Song for Simeon: “my life is light,” Eliot writes here.

We can find beauty in any artistic expression of Simeon’s cry, a light to lighten the Gentiles, but sometimes life is more shadow than light and it is those times when we can hold on to Tagore’s words above, believing that light is possible even before it appears.

Ultimately the greatest beauty is found in our own ability to embody light, to be radiant, buoyant expressions of love moving through this world.

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.

 

 

The Still Point

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.

What are memories made from? I know there are scientific answers to that question, but I’m more interested in the metaphysical explanation. We know that memory is malleable, that we can’t count on our memories of conversations and events being completely accurate. Or at least, we should know that. I believe we do remember feelings – our feelings of fear or happiness, safety or sorrow. More than sight, senses of smell and hearing seem to create lasting memories that often relate to our feelings, rather than to specific moments in our lives. Our house was affected by a tornado several years ago, and it wasn’t until weeks later when I sat on an airplane and heard the jet engines roar to life that I suffered a few moments of PTSD.  I don’t recall hearing anything except breaking glass in my panic at the time, until I heard a similar sound which caused that panic to return.

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

Wrestling with T.S. Eliot’s Burnt Norton seems like an autumnal event to me. I don’t pretend to have any depth of understanding of these poems in his Four Quartets, but the words evoke familiar feelings that I yearn to understand, and cause questions to arise which don’t have answers. There is so much truth in Eliot’s belief that poetry communicates before it is understood. News and life have lately conspired to make me think about memories and nostalgia and all the ways that our minds hold on – or let go – of life’s experiences.  Is Eliots’ “still point” the moment when the present meets our former self in a memory? Do the future and past exist within the present?

Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

An important figure in my childhood memories died recently. He lived on a farm where my friend and I spent our summers, and she and I will return to the scenes of those youthful summers which bound us so closely together for a memorial service. Memories of those idyllic summers from many decades ago are back in force right now. Laying in the grass under the shade of a tree-lined horse pasture, propped on elbows in hunt of four-leaved clover.  Picnics near the opening to a badger’s den that we watched for years with hope of seeing a nose poke out, wind moving through the pine trees, games of croquet and badminton that became boring or competitive depending on the day. It was a childhood of summers spent reading on the screened porch and picking gigantic zucchinis that seemed to grow overnight. Reclaiming those memories means reclaiming those feelings of freedom and wonder and a thousand life lessons, and all of that makes me feel like I am moving through Eliot’s coexistence of time past and present and future.

In another part of my life, my mother is shedding new memories more quickly and clinging to old memories more ferociously. I’ve entered her world of time past and present in ways that I hope will keep us close for as long as possible. I’ve also begun teaching a piano student who is openly and bravely facing memory issues. Music is this person’s connection between past and present. In Oliver Sack’s book Musicophilia he writes in the final chapter, titled “Music and Identity,” about the ways that music experienced by dementia patients draws on the deepest parts of their memories, but also grounds them in the present, creating shared experiences of listening and singing with others around them.

Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence.

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.

 

 

Such a Feast

On the Episcopal Church’s liturgical calendar, February 27 is the day which commemorates George Herbert,  17th century Anglican priest and metaphysical poet.

Ambiguity, some would argue, is at the heart of Anglicanism, and it is also the essence of George Herbert’s poetry. Writing in 1928, T.S. Eliot, suggested that Herbert (1593-1633) appeared on the scene at a crucial moment in Anglican history. It was a time of circumnavigation as well as circumspection, a time when people showed a remarkable willingness to question the world around them, along with an increased understanding that Christian life requires both an interior spirituality and the outward and visible signs of music, stained glass, liturgy, and sacraments. Herbert’s faith was private and public, a both/and kind of faith rather than an either/or one.

It occurs to me that, though our world is largely explainable by science now, and God is, for most Episcopalians, not a terrifying, controlling presence in our lives, we still have questions for God, and we’re still uncomfortable with the ambiguous answers we’re given. The intimacy which Herbert established in the conversational tone of his poetry is, I believe, at the root of his appeal to our modern ears. Herbert’s God is approachable and loving.

soul composed of harmonies

That’s how a contemporary described Herbert, who played the lute and set some of his own poems to music, as did Purcell and the Wesley brothers in over forty hymns for the early Methodist hymnal. I would suggest, however, that Herbert’s poetry, for all its ties to the 17th century, in terms of vocabulary and assumptions about God’s place in everyone’s daily life, takes us into mystical, magical places that require a wider harmonic language than would have been used by composers of the Baroque, Classical and even Romantic periods of music history, and so it’s no surprise to me that it is 20th and 21st century composers who have so often found inspiration in Herbert’s texts. His words suggest a firm tonal center, but one that allows for sudden and unexpected excursions into far-flung tonalities.  His poems require richly atmospheric qualities that have been explored by composers, such as Randall Thompson, Ralph Vaughan Williams, John Tavener and many composers dedicated to writing for the Episcopal Church, including the former music director at General Theological Seminary, composer and organist David Hurd in his setting of Love Bade Me Welcome.

In this poem, God (Love) welcomes the narrator of the poem, presumably into Heaven, where a feast is offered, but the guest feels unworthy of Love’s hospitality. The poem is a dialogue, but at one moment it is unclear who speaks next: following Love’s question of who is to blame for the guest’s feeling of shame at his unworthiness, the answer is “My dear, then I will serve”, at which point Love invites the guest to sit down and eat. Is God serving the guest, or the guest serving God?

Perhaps you will be as surprised as I was to learn that the pop singer Madonna quoted George Herbert in her song “Love Tried to Welcome Me.” Love tried to welcome me, but my soul drew back, so goes the refrain.  Strange bedfellows or a sign of the value that Herbert’s 400 year old insights still carry? Feelings of unworthiness have sadly not gone out of fashion.

One of the things we know of Herbert’s life is that he was loved as a child by a vivacious and learned mother in a house filled with music and ideas, and that when he married at age 36, it was a happy union, all too soon followed by his death, at which he was surrounded by loving friends and family.  Love, as a elemental name for God, is so often the subject of Herbert’s poetry. His own love for God was anguished, it never seemed to him to be enough.

At the end of Herbert’s exuberant poem A True Hymn he writes that though our words be scant and “our heart sayes, (sighing to be approved); O, could I love!  And stops: God writeth, Loved.” For all his wondering whether or not his love for God was sufficient, Herbert’s faith assured him that God’s love in return was unhesitating. One musical setting: A True Hymn by Craig Phillips

Herbert’s 1633 poem, The Call, is from his collection called The Temple. It seems to be a calling out to God, rather than a listening for God’s instructions, as we so often define “call.” These are words of invitation, not command. Please come my way, my truth, my life, my light, my feast, my strength, my joy, my love, my heart. Like any good conversation,  perhaps “call” involves listening and talking.

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a Way, as gives us breath:
Such a Truth, as ends all strife:
Such a Life, as killeth death.

Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:
Such a Light, as shows a feast:
Such a Feast, as mends in length:
Such a Strength, as makes his guest.

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
Such a Joy, as none can move:
Such a Love, as none can part:
Such a Heart, as joyes in love.

Could a poem be any more simple and direct? Made almost exclusively out of single-syllable words, it has a clear structure that repeats the three introductory words of each stanza, in case there is any confusion about what God really represents in our lives. Truth, A (Eucharistic) Feast, Love. As much as listening for a call, we might also issue an invitation for these things to come more deeply into our lives. And the greatest of these is love. (I Cor. 13:13).  Is that our call?

As I understand it, the “metaphysical” poets, as a number of 17th century English poets 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 workman’s tool hath touched 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.

If You Meet George Herbert on the Road, Kill Him must be one of the more unforgettable book titles I’ve ever come across (playing off the title of a pop psychology book that has Buddha in place of George Herbert)Though I haven’t read it, I believe the basic premise is that George Herbert set the bar pretty high for clergy.  He gave tirelessly to his parish of his time and treasure – contributing his own money for the repair and enlargement of the church where he served and ceaselessly riding about his parish on horseback to visit parishioners, conducting several services every day.  He became a parish priest during the last three years of his life, previously serving in Parliament, and by eschewing worldly advancement and becoming instead a country parson he demonstrated a level of humility that few are called to. But he also wore himself out, dying at age 39 in 1633.

Within his poems, George Herbert wrestled publicly with his self-doubts and difficulties, but his faith in a loving God never seemed to waver. The first part of The Windows , heard here in a musical setting by Alan Lewis, contains some of Herbert’s most cherished beliefs – that what we hear with our ears must also be heard by our conscience, and though we are crazie (flawed), God might still shine through us, as a window transmits light.

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.