Unison

I began an adventure this past week, moving temporarily to a new city where I know almost no one, working in ways that require me to spend a lot of time alone. Like a lot of introverts, I don’t mind being alone, and I am blessed in never feeling lonely, but that isn’t to say I don’t enjoy all the daily interactions with others that I do have, in rehearsals and meetings and while exploring new places around me.

Author and social researcher Brene Brown has written and spoken, including most recently as the preacher at Washington National Cathedral, about loneliness as the greatest predictor of premature death – more than smoking or obesity.  She was quoting from a British study that’s making the rounds and which has caused the British government to take notice about the health care costs of loneliness.

Church as antidote to loneliness is not a new idea, but to my delight Brown mentioned that singing with people she doesn’t know is one of the best reasons to go to church. She then turned to the Cathedral’s superb choir seated behind the pulpit and, getting a good laugh from everyone, said something to the effect that those particular strangers would do!

YES! a well-trained choir is there to sing with a congregation. Occasionally, at Evensong for example, they are singing on behalf of a congregation, but never instead of, and certainly not despite.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who loved music so much, believed singing in unison was the best way for a community to pray together. The clarity and purity of unison singing – even when it’s somewhat out of tune croaking from the least musically-inclined –  for Bonhoeffer was the most joyful way to illuminate “the Word in its mystery.”

When voices come together in the words of a creed or in the tune and words of a hymn these are things which express the collective wisdom of many across time and place. Some can’t bring themselves to believe parts of the creeds we say, some cannot sing well…and yet these are still unison expressions of a community. Collectively we can believe the creeds, and collectively we can sing as one. Saying corporate prayers and singing in unison become the voice of the Church, not simply a collection of individual voices.

We need to know how to be alone as much as how to be in community, just as we need both self-sufficiency and human interactions in order to survive and to thrive. I believe that harmony and dissonance are as important to music as they are to social discourse, but as a musician I can say that it is training a choir to sing well in unison that is actually one of the hardest things there is to do. And I firmly believe that we are called on a regular basis to practice doing hard things.

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.

 

Evensong

Maybe the Anglican service of Evensong seems frivolous, in light of the needs and suffering in this world. Attending Evensong is an interior experience, one that is personal and private. It’s also a labor-intensive service, musically rich, but seemingly passive for the congregation. A few weeks ago, a sermon (during Eucharist, not Evensong, which rarely includes a sermon) about the power of gentleness to change our culture of violence made me think, however, that it’s not so frivolous after all to spend a few minutes exploring what makes this gentlest of worship experiences, Evensong, continue to be an important part of our tradition.

In fact, it was suggested to me that I write something about Evensong and expand on it a bit in relation to a class being taught this fall to people who are interested in learning more about the Episcopal Church.  This uniquely Anglican/Episcopal experience, nurtured in just a few churches these days, is intended to be part of a daily spiritual practice, one which is part of a centuries-old tradition of having prayers said and sung on your behalf, much as monks and nuns have done in their daily services for even more centuries.

In this country very few people these days, no surprise, make the time for, or have access to, a daily service of Evensong. In the U.K. it’s a different story. Cathedral worship, and Evensong in particular, has been where the Anglican church sees growth, particularly among a younger generation who are finding meaning in mystery. One British study showed an increase of 60% in Evensong attendance in the past decade. Read more. We are fortunate in this area to have Washington National Cathedral’s daily offering of Evensong, and several other churches with weekly or monthly choral Evensong as well.

The choir’s music during Evensong is as much prayer as any spoken words and the prayers of Evensong become part of the fabric of the building. I think people can sense those prayers, soaked into the walls, when they walk into a church or cathedral. Whether spoken or sung, these are prayers which become part of the gentleness we send out into the world.

In 2013, while on sabbatical, I attended Evensong twelve times in seven different churches or cathedrals. For me, these were chances to experience glorious music written for God, sung beautifully by well-rehearsed choirs as part of a liturgy and not in performance. While I simply listened, I worshiped. I was able to absorb the beauty of the architecture around me, admire the composers’ craft, and appreciate the shape that liturgy takes in the hands of organists who have practiced many long hours.  I even failed to notice the vergers (this is a good thing) who work to make liturgy appear seamless.

On a good day liturgy can come together to create flow – a psychological term that describes a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of an activity. In this case, the activity for me was participating in liturgy as a listener. I think sometimes we get so caught up in doing, and I am grateful for those times when I’m allowed to just be. That is what Evensong promises.

In the Episcopal Church our faith is expressed in words and symbols, in music and banners, in architecture and vestments. All of our senses will be engaged when worship is done well. But most important, our faith is expressed in the joy that radiates from each of us when we truly experience God in worship. The Episcopal Church has given us all a gift with Evensong, a way to absorb God’s gifts of beauty, to participate in corporate prayers, and to celebrate God’s transcendence.

Peace,
Sonya

 

Joy in Sadness

You’ve probably heard music written in a minor key that ends with a final major chord which lands on the ears like a ray of sunshine coming through the clouds. That kind of moment in music is known as a Picardy third – taking a minor chord and raising the middle note to create a major chord – and it certainly has a place in music-making.  Sadness to cheerfulness.  A happy ending.

Recently, while preparing Bach’s Fantasy and Fugue in G Minor, BWV 542 for a concert, I found myself grinning during a particularly favorite passage near the end of the fugue. I felt such joy shining through the minor key.

Sun through cloudsIt’s not a big step for most of us to think about the possibility of joy coming after sadness goes away.  I think we have a harder time thinking about experiencing joy IN sadness. Not so much finding that the dark clouds have moved away and the sun is back in full force, but those magical times when diffused rays of sun come through the dark clouds.  Perhaps when someone we love has died and we are mourning their loss, yet feeling grateful at the same time that they were ever part of our lives. Or when someone we trust betrays us, feeling fortunate to have new insights into what true friendship looks like in contrast.  Perhaps something doesn’t work out the way we hope, yet we have enough wisdom to find gladness in the possibilities of our future.

In yoga, a set of principles known as niyamas offer the prescription of santosha as a way of finding joy through contentment with what is.  Not what could or should be, but an embrace of the place where we are now.  Dark clouds and all.

I am no Pollyanna about finding rays of sun through the darkest clouds.  It would be unrealistic, not to mention unkind, to expect victims of tragedy to find joy in their pain. Maybe, just maybe, in that case we can find ways to be the diffused light so desperately needed by others in our world.  It seems like very little, yet perhaps we can simply cling to what makes us human by continuing to pursue understanding and beauty.  And that brings me back to Bach’s great fugue in G minor, even ending, as it does, with a Picardy third. 

Here is what this Holy Week holds for me:  playing for a Maundy Thursday service at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, attending the Good Friday service at Washington National Cathedral, and for the first and perhaps only time ever, worshiping  with my husband on Easter Sunday, also at Washington National Cathedral.  Having experienced Holy Week in some sense already this year, I am grateful to learn that I still care about being in church and am gingerly walking my way through the Triduum.

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 to be grateful for.