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

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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.

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

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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.

 

Openness

The music itself is obviously responsible for the “intention” I’ve set for this 4th Goldberg Variation. Open intervals of 3rds, 4ths and 5ths provide the music’s primary color, eschewing fancy running passage-work or complex polyphony. There is something so earnest and guileless about this variation. Some might even say unsophisticated, as trusting open-heartedness can sometimes seem.

Goldberg Variation 4 (Openness)

Easy enough to define openness as the opposite of secrecy. If your feelings and vulnerabilities are open for all to see then the armor of secrecy can’t protect you from others’ judgments and attacks. That sounds scary, but secrecy seems even more dangerous since it also protects you from having to be truthful…Pinocchio, I’m talking to you.

As Sophocles wrote, “Do nothing secretly, for time sees and hears all things, and discloses all.” Or as the Buddha taught, “three things cannot long stay hidden: the sun, the moon and the truth.”

Openness asks questions. Secrecy tries to hide the answers. Openness is sensitive to surrounding beauty. Secrecy is too busy guarding the gate to see what is outside of  it. Openness seeks to make connections. Secrecy closes doors. Openness tries to see what is possible. Secrecy fears new information. Openness disarms with candor. Secrecy empowers the manipulative.

I choose openness.

Peace,
Sonya


I’ve lived with Bach’s Goldberg Variations for a long time now. More than half my lifetime in fact. I would pull them out periodically, feeling that I was revisiting an old friend, but a friend who always has something new to share. I began thinking about Bach and mindfulness last year in a way that meant something to me. Each variation became linked in my mind with a word and that word became something like the “intention” that yoga students are sometimes asked to set for their practice. A word to mediate on and to help draw more from within. For the next 32 weeks I will post one of the variations and write about the word I associated with the music. Sometimes a connection will seem obvious, but more often it will be unexplainable. It became apparent as I worked on this project that I thought about things which I wanted to cultivate in myself, ways of being in the world that were positive. All of the recordings are to be made in my living room, playing the 9 foot Steinway that was gifted to me on January 5, 2016.

 

 

 

 

What is True?

If you saw this past Sunday’s Washington Post Magazine, perhaps like me you were struck by the quote on the first page:

IT IS CONFRONTING THE TRUTH THAT LEADS TO LIBERATION FROM OUR PAST

Printed in capital letters as it was, it came across not like the screaming of an all-caps email or text, but rather as something solidly incontrovertible. Representative John Lewis’s words, said in connection to the Smithsonian’s soon-to-open museum of African-American history and culture, are worthy of engraving in stone.

Does it seem that people are sometimes afraid of the truth though? I don’t mean the superficial truths about someone’s appearance or revelations that are somewhat embarrassing, but those deeper truths that involve the rights and wrongs of justice.  Moral truths that affect people lives in important ways.  The kinds of truth, in other words, that force us to face our fears and require us to change.

“The truth is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution,” said one wise philosopher, Albus Dumbledore, to a young Harry Potter.  Is it the terrible part of truth that we fear?  The uncomfortable parts that keep us from maintaining a moral certainty of correctness? Of our superiority?  The stuff we try to sweep under the rug, sometimes with great (if temporary) success?

What better time is there than the height of a presidential election season to meditate on the word “truth”? Especially this election, with its accusations of secretiveness, outright lies, and manipulations of truth (a.k.a. polling!).  Am I right in my sense that the concept of truth is taking more of a beating than usual this time around?  That factual truths can be so easily proven in this day and age makes me wonder if we’re de-sensitized to lying.  Everyone lies after all.  But what about those things which can’t be verified with a quick Google search?

The etymology of the word “true” is telling.  Coming from a Middle English word for tree, trewe, from Old English trēowe, and Old High German triuwi, meaning faithful, it is also a word that is probably related to Sanskrit’s dāruṇa (hard) and dāru (wood).  Rootedness then is something that trees and beliefs have in common.

Before we name as true some of those deeply held beliefs which are firmly rooted in us, do remember that at one time people knew that the world was flat, that the sun revolved around the earth, that left-handed people were evil, that women are the property of men, that people of African descent are inferior.  These weren’t (and aren’t) casually held opinions.  These things were simply true. Holding too firmly to something that proves to be untrue sounds like a recipe for ridicule and disappointment.

If a truth has deep roots then maybe it can withstand the hollow lies people cling to.  What are some of the truths that we might allow to become deeply rooted in us? Truths that won’t open us to ridicule and disappointment.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu may have come closest to naming some basic truths in one of his oft-quoted sermons, and I can’t help but believe that the world would be a better place if we allowed these to take root in us:

Good is stronger than evil; Love is stronger than hate; Light is stronger than darkness; Life is stronger than death. Victory is ours, through him who loves us.

Worthy of engraving on our hearts. And if I may,  I’d like to add one more…truth is stronger than deception.

Peace,
Sonya

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Where I’ll be:

September 4 through November 20 – organist/choir director at Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church (1 Chevy Chase Circle, Washington, D.C.) while their Music Director is on sabbatical. http://www.chevychasepc.org

September 27 – organist and choir director for a service celebrating the institution of The Rev. Matthew Hanisian as Rector of St. Martin’s-in-the Field Episcopal Church, Severna Park, MD. 7:00 p.m.

October 5 – Millennium Stage, Kennedy Center, 6:00 p.m., I will be playing on a program with Furia Flamenco and Guillermo Christie.

Also in October, I will be playing for the High Holy Days (a first for me) for the Bethesda Jewish Congregation.

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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.

Both Sides Now

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for confusion, and a time for understanding.  
                                                    –Ecclesiastes 3

(Ok, I admit the last line is mine, but I think King Solomon would approve.)

The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth. – Danish physicist Niels Bohr

A book about math and science that a friend recommended as highly readable had been languishing on my bedside table for a couple of years now.  I can’t begin to explain why I picked it up as my “beach reading” for a quick trip to Florida a few weeks ago, but The Universe and the Teacup by K.C. Cole had me with its subtitle: The Mathematics of Truth and Beauty.  The author suggested ways that the realm of physics offers us the opportunity to understand how we might avoid those often impossible choices between one valid truth and another.  Not mourning or dancing, but times for mourning and dancing.  Seeing different truths gives us a deeper insight into a problem, just as mourning and dancing offer us a fuller understanding of life.  Cole gives the example of light – at once a wave and a particle.  Life, she reminds us, can be explained by biology as much as by novels and poetry.  Or as Joni Mitchell wrote, clouds are ice cream castles in the air one moment and the next, simply something that block the sun.

Both Sides Now – Joni Mitchell

A young friend gave me permission to share excerpts from an opinion piece she wrote for her high school newspaper recently.  I was moved by her ability to articulate the practicality of impracticality.  That doctors and poets are equally responsible for moving humanity forward in our search for understanding.

So We Beat On: Why Art Matters by Sophia Higgins

Here’s the truth: Life isn’t fair.  Or perfect, or quantifiable by any metric.  There are people who live under bridges and in war zones and with heroin addicts for parents.  People are unequal and things often don’t go as planned.  That’s just the way things are.  We exist to alleviate suffering…Doctors and the Mother Teresa’s of the world keep us living…but there’s still a group of people whose purpose is not so clear.  Of what use is the poet, the musician, the painter?  Poetry doesn’t keep you alive.  A song can’t cure disease.  Art is what we survive for…it finds meaning beyond the suffering…connecting people in the most basic expressive way, [creating something that touches] you despite a gap of space and time.

Art is pointless

The fact that a “theory of everything” in physics remains elusive just might reveal the limitations of having any single point of view.  Perhaps understanding requires us to stay open to contrasting perspectives and truths.  K.C. Cole, in The Universe and the Teacup quotes 20th century theoretical physicist Victor Weisskopf:

What’s beautiful in science is that same thing that’s beautiful in Beethoven.  There’s fog of events and suddenly you see a connection.  It expresses a complex of human concerns that goes deeply to you, that connects things that were always in you that were never put together before.

Symmetry and proportions are often our guides through the fog as we search for meaning and beauty. As Cole writes, “symmetry therefore lends a satisfying concreteness to the vague sense that there is beauty in truth, and truth to beauty.” Could the symmetry of seeming opposites create different perspectives and definitions which take us to those deep truths we yearn to understand?

Peace,

Sonya


Where I’ll be:

April 17 – Church of the Redeemer, 6201 Dunrobbin Drive, Bethesda MD, playing for their 10:30 am service

April 24 – performing L’enfant prodigue, Debussy’s one-act opera, with Mary Shaffran, James Shaffran and Andrew Brown, at Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church, Bethesda, 7:30 p.m. ($15 suggested donation)

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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.

 

 

 

 

Seven Divided by Three

A composer-friend wrote a piece for me a few weeks ago.  A lovely choral work that sets the Easter text by Charles Wesley, Love’s redeeming work is done.  My friend, Rob Lehman, thought the text would bring some comfort during a difficult time in my life, and having friendship take the form of a new creation was deeply moving.  An early Easter present:

Love’s redeeming work is done, fought the fight, the battle won, Death in vain forbids him rise; Christ has opened paradise.

Lives again our glorious King; where, O death, is now thy sting? Once he died our souls to save, where thy victory, O grave?

Soar we now where Christ has led, following our exalted Head; made like him, like him we rise, ours the cross, the grave, the skies.

I had told Rob a few years ago that I loved pieces in 7/8 time, and he promptly wrote a sparkling setting of the wonderful 19th century American text, How can I keep from singing, for me…in 7/8 time of course.  When I called to thank him for this new work a few weeks ago, I reflected on why 7/8 is so appealing to me, wondering aloud if it is because performing a piece in 7/8 time requires a musician to divide seven into three parts – albeit three unequal parts.  2+2+3 or 3+2+2 or even 2+3+2.   We know the importance of three in our thinking.   Spiritually it’s the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost.  Personally it might be the trinity of friends, family and work that makes claims on our time and affection.  The power of three makes itself known in all kinds of ways in our lives. The three little pigs…Goldilocks and the three bears… three people walked into a bar…bad things happen in threes.

But 7/8 time is the reminder that the three parts of something are never equally present at any given time.  Spiritually, there are times when we walk more closely with the Son, depend more on the Father, or are more aware of the Holy Spirit working in our lives.  Certainly, friends and family and work play unequal roles at various points in our life.  Which isn’t to say we don’t need a balance of these three parts, just that they can’t be equally important at any given moment.

I wrote about 7/8 years ago, describing the dance I felt inherent in that time signature.  Not a waltz, or any other kind of dance you would see in the ballroom, but a dance where varying parts are made into a whole. A woman responded, then, writing that she had multiple sclerosis and nothing made her happier than being held by her husband as they danced together in graceful awkwardness. That’s why I love 7/8 time.

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Where I’ll be:

Sunday, March 13

first…Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church, substitute organist for their 10:30 am service and then…Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church’s annual Bach Marathon which runs from 2:00-7:00.  I’ll be playing two of my favorite preludes and fugues during the 4:30-5:00 time slot.

This blog represents an attempt to continue putting 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, and if a community conversation comes out of it, all the better.  We have so much to share and so much to be grateful for.

Peace,
Sonya

 

Welcome!

Welcome to this new venture!  I will be posting every other Thursday beginning February 25th.  Topics will include music, art, poetry, and spirituality, among other general observations.  In addition, I will post about upcoming performances.  Looking forward to exploring with you!