and there an answer

I had an idea that I should re-shape my mind to focus less on striving for romantic love, and more on the sweetness of God.

In pursuit thereof, it seemed beneficial to form new habits, which would give a different cast to my mind: reading Scripture every day (less sporadically), praying more regularly, avoiding certain haunts on Tumblr and Ao3, and reading some devotional work or poetry (beginning with The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis).

The poetry that first came to mind was the product of a Facebook friend.  She’s more of an acquaintance after we’ve spent so many years in different places, yet I would delight in any time spent with her.  While I don’t wish to follow her footsteps exactly, her life’s path struck me as a useful exemplar: a woman who reads widely, writes beautifully, has never seemed concerned with Eros in her life, and who has discerned a vocation as a nun.

I set out to capture her poetry (lest she remove it one day from Facebook) and, along the way, also captured her quotations: a sort of vade mecum, even if it was originally hers and not mine.

In so doing…

Well, obviously I fell prey to envy once again.  Not merely over her reading and writing, her photography, or her understanding of the world, but her graduate degree, the time she spent growing while teaching, and her friendships: lively and verdant and close, full of delight and encouragement.

I was also envious, during this process, of my past self’s relationships and pursuits, wishing I’d worked harder and studied more (somehow found energy to do more of everything).  I’m disappointed in the sites or blog posts from 3 or 5 or 7 years back that have since disappeared.  I miss the way the world was, I miss how we engaged with each other, I miss feeling part of it.

I don’t really feel like I’m part of anything, these days.

So of course I asked a different friend how to deal with regret over past failures, and of course he counselled that forgetting what is behind and striving toward what is ahead generally works best.

And so I turned back to today’s reading on Psalm 119 (laboring, as ever, over Oh how I love your law!) and chapters X and XI of Book 1 of Imitation of Christ.

Just look at this:

Of seeking peace of mind and of spiritual progress

We may enjoy abundance of peace if we refrain from busying ourselves with the sayings and doings of others, and things which concern not ourselves. How can he abide long time in peace who occupieth himself with other men’s matters, and with things without himself, and meanwhile payeth little or rare heed to the self within? Blessed are the single-hearted, for they shall have abundance of peace.

How came it to pass that many of the Saints were so perfect, so contemplative of Divine things? Because they steadfastly sought to mortify themselves from all worldly desires, and so were enabled to cling with their whole heart to God, and be free and at leisure for the thought of Him. We are too much occupied with our own affections, and too anxious about transitory things. Seldom, too, do we entirely conquer even a single fault, nor are we zealous for daily growth in grace. And so we remain lukewarm and unspiritual.

Were we fully watchful of ourselves, and not bound in spirit to outward things, then might we be wise unto salvation, and make progress in Divine contemplation. Our great and grievous stumbling-block is that, not being freed from our affections and desires, we strive not to enter into the perfect way of the Saints. And when even a little trouble befalleth us, too quickly are we cast down, and fly to the world to give us comfort.

If we would quit ourselves like men, and strive to stand firm in the battle, then should we see the Lord helping us from Heaven. For He Himself is alway ready to help those who strive and who trust in Him; yea, He provideth for us occasions of striving, to the end that we may win the victory. If we look upon our progress in religion as a progress only in outward observances and forms, our devoutness will soon come to an end. But let us lay the axe to the very root of our life, that, being cleansed from affections, we may possess our souls in peace.

If each year should see one fault rooted out from us, we should go quickly on to perfection. But on the contrary, we often feel that we were better and holier in the beginning of our conversion than after many years of profession. Zeal and progress ought to increase day by day; yet now it seemeth a great thing if one is able to retain some portion of his first ardour. If we would put some slight stress on ourselves at the beginning, then afterwards we should be able to do all things with ease and joy.

It is a hard thing to break through a habit, and a yet harder thing to go contrary to our own will. Yet if thou overcome not slight and easy obstacles, how shalt thou overcome greater ones? Withstand thy will at the beginning, and unlearn an evil habit, lest it lead thee little by little into worse difficulties. Oh, if thou knewest what peace to thyself thy holy life should bring to thyself, and what joy to others, methinketh thou wouldst be more zealous for spiritual profit.

Well.  There’s my marching orders.  Lay the axe to the very root of our life!  Thank God for such pointed words.  May He grant it.

Rabbit Holes: Historicism

It’s Lent.  I meant to talk about the simultaneity of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day, but this column is a better treatment of the topic than I could give.

So.  It’s Lent, time of penitence and discipline and observances.  One of my disciplines for this Lent is the study of Isaiah.  I hope to find and commit to a particular theologian’s commentary on it (please leave any suggestions or recommendations in the comments), but in the meantime, there’s the simple act of reading it, of pondering the text itself.

Isaiah’s prophecy and visions regarding the nation of Israel being taken into captivity concern a specific event (or events, as sections of the prophecy point directly to Christ’s birth and his death).  I haven’t actually studied theology in great enough depth to tell you much more than that.

In my reading about God’s judgment of Judah, I came on this verse:

Isaiah 5:7:
For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
and he looked for justice,
but behold, bloodshed;
for righteousness,
but behold, an outcry!

When you read this in the wake of children being shot at a school in Florida, the bloodshed and outcry of the present day seem inextricable from what war and wickedness went on in Judah.

I got a bit concerned about myself, and whether I was being heretical by applying this scripture to the present concerns – concerned enough to try categorizing it, which meant my brother got a charming e-mail with the subject line “Heresy question.”

He categorized it as personal judgment, and potentially premillennialism.  Reading up on premillennialism suggested that the doctrine to avoid was historicism, which made me wonder if my favorite Lutheran blog had written anything on the subject.

Searching for the term brought this post to my attention.  It’s not actually focused on historicism, mentioning it once and moving on, but examines several other matters worth rumination.

Trent’s discussion of students properly being eager and earnest, of the proper wonder for the world as God’s creation, and of a joy that is serious, have all highlighted to me how I have lost my own zeal, my own earnestness, and thus my own joy:

Joy is not the opposite of seriousness. Joy is rather its concomitant, arising only from that which seriousness alone affords, for joy is the saved soul’s perception of God in His works, which are the good, the true, and the beautiful. The eye of faith takes joy in the good creation of God which it espies beneath the marring of sin, the good world which the fire of heaven will, at the last trumpet, purge and make new. Joy is the highest transfiguration of wonder. It is a deeply serious affair.

I feel convicted, that in the stead of true joy or delight, I might have instead been merely flippant.  But it is my hope that the study and discipline of Lent will pave the way for a wholly joyful Easter.


Earworm Alleluia

It’s that time of year when Choral Union prepares for Handel’s Messiah, which always confuses the inner calendar.  We skate from Isaiah’s prophecies to Luke 2 fulfillment, from Lenten sorrow to resurrection triumph, to judgment, and then back in reverse order because that’s how rehearsal works.  Truly, it is a glorious liturgical muddle.

This week, we ran through the happier movements of part 2 (“Lift up your heads, O ye gates” and the choruses following) and all the choruses of part 3.  Instead of picky melismata, there’s more emphasis on dynamic contrast and fugal exposition.  The music rises in one great crescendo, such that I left practice with “Worthy is the Lamb” resounding in my head.  There is such a fierce joy in proclaiming Christ’s victory over sin and death, a taste of what is to come.

That vehement delight also accounts for my aural addiction to Anuna’s “Dicant Nunc,” a new setting of an old Easter antiphon:

Christus resurgens ex mortuis          Christ, being raised from the dead,
iam non moritur:                         dies no more;
mors illi ultra non dominabitur.        Death hath no more dominion over him.
Quod enim vivit, vivit Deo.              For in that He lives, He lives to God.
Alleluia.                                    Alleluia!
Dicant nunc Iudaei,                      Let the Jews now say
quomodo milites custodientes            how the soldiers guarding
sepulchrum perdiderunt Regem         the sepulchre lost the King
ad lapidis positionem.                    sealed with a stone.
Quare non servabant                    Why did they not watch
petram iustitiae?                          the rock of justice?
Aut sepultum reddant,                  Let them either return him buried,
aut resurgentem adorent nobiscum    or with us worship him risen,
dicentes Alleluia.                         saying Alleluia.

This whole text makes me waggle my fingers in exultation.  Death has no mastery over Him!!  In the same way, we may count ourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.

What welcome news at any and all times of year.  Alleluia indeed!

Midnight’s Chiding

Russell Kirk (and many others, I am sure) called 3 of the clock in the morning, the “Witching Hour”.

It is an hour which has inspired some of the best imaginings and writings from many. The combined comfortable darkness and the pleasant relaxation of concentration allows for great freedom and spiritedness. Or, just spirits of several kinds.

Lately, my “witching hour” has not been very pleasant. In my green youth, 3 o’ clock Ante Meridian was a time of fresh energy; usually after a night of signing, guitar and violin music, poetry discussions, and genteel wine-sipping, the liveliness began to fade at about 2. But if we just pushed a little further until 3, we suddenly caught a second wind and began to debate anew, and with more brilliant wit, the merits of John Donne versus John Keats.

With (relative) maturity came a more responsible witching hour. My late nights were usually in the company of my books, research, computer, blankets and candles. Elthelweard used to call my nest of studiousness. That magical hour really did bring clarity and quick writing.

Then, as age crept towards me, the haunting of the that hour become one of slight concern. It is the time of night when I regularly wake suddenly, gasping with almost hysteria over everything I forgot to accomplish (do laundry, pay bills!) and everything that I have to yet to do (grade the spelling quiz, submit lesson plans, clean the kitchen, job hunt, apartment find). So I lull myself back to sleep with promises of doing everything in the morning. But it takes so long to do so that by morning I am too exhausted to remember my midnight chidings. And the vicious cycle continues.

Is this a part of growing up? Why must the magic of the 3 0’clock be lost to me? How do I find my way to Neverland?

Finally, in desperation, I started to recite things I had memorized in my childhood in an effort to fight the midnight worries. After a few minutes of brainless mumbling, I found that I was simply repeating two lines which I had not particularly considered in years.

The Lord is my Shepherd,
I shall not want.

The ultimate song of peace and trust, and it took my semi-conscience mind to turn to it. Once I actually started to concentrate on the words and meaning, it took only a few minutes to fall back asleep. Amazing how simple my problems are once I get my priorities straight.

And this morning I had enough energy to rememorize the whole verse.

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.     He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters,     he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths     for his name’s sake. Even though I walk     through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil,     for you are with me; your rod and your staff,     they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me     in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil;     my cup overflows. Surely your goodness and love will follow me     all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord     forever.

Literary Liturgical Litany

Having been inspired by Thalia’s Blog Birthday post, I put together this litany for writers.  Its format follows the Great Litany of the Episcopal Church.  No disrespect is intended; rather, I hope that we all might seek the aid of the Author of Life as we set out to write.

O God the Father, whose name precedes all discussion of existence; who spoke all things that are into being; who orders the cosmos with a word,
Have mercy upon us.

O God the Son, the Word made flesh who dwelt among us; the author and perfecter of our faith; whose words will never pass away,
Have mercy upon us.

O God the Holy Spirit, who spoke by the prophets; who sunders speech and melds it anew into coherence; who intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express,
Have mercy upon us.

O holy, blessed, and glorious Trinity, one God, who has given the scriptures by inspiration for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness,
Have mercy upon us.

Remember not, Lord Christ, our first drafts, nor our long-disposed outlines; neither reward us according to our wordcraft.  Spare us, good Lord, spare thy creatures, for whom thou hast poured out the treasure of thy precious blood: the Word become flesh, the myth become fact, the sinless become sin for our sake.  By thy mercy preserve us, for ever.
Spare us, good Lord.

From all blindness of heart; from pride, vainglory, and hypocrisy; from envy, hatred, and malice; and from all want of charity,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From all false doctrine, heresy, and schism; from hardness of heart, and contempt of thy Word and commandment,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From tepidity of convictions and weakness of thought, reason, and diction,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From vacuity of substance and fatuous compositions,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From misuse of our time and distractions in our research; from antipathy for labor and the soul-weight of sloth,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From needless verbiage which obscures truth and sense,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From incorrect data, false testimony, skewed perspectives, incomplete citations, and misleading rhetoric,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From disorganized ideas; from overused tropes and clichéd plots; from plot holes and inconsistencies,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From paper-destroying fire and flood; from battery failure, power outages, viruses, frozen screens, unsaved documents, and all other complications,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From writer’s cramp and carpal tunnel syndrome; from smudged ink; from an illegible hand,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From poor grammar and careless editing; from conflation of similar terms and confusion of homophones; from the run-on sentence and typo,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From the evils of comma abuse, apostrophe neglect, and subject-verb disagreement,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From confusion of tense, voice, and mood,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From all kinds of aphasia and dullness of expression,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From unconstructive, vicious reviews; from careless readership,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From fear of honest writing and the perils of self-doubt,
Good Lord, deliver us.

In all instances of writer’s block; in all time of springing words; in the hour of editing, and in the day of publishing,
Good Lord, deliver us.

We writers do beseech thee to hear us, O Lord God; and that it may please thee to govern our hearts to glorify you in our writing,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

That it may please thee to illumine our minds as we put words to the page,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

That it may please thee to breathe into our spirits your life-giving word, and sustain us when fainting,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

That it may please thee to inspire us, in our several callings, to do the work which thou givest us to do with singleness of heart as thy servants, and for the common good,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

That it may please thee to grant that, in the fellowship of Francis de Sales and all the saints, we may attain to thy heavenly kingdom,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.

Son of God, we beseech thee to hear us.
Son of God, we beseech thee to hear us.

O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world,
Have mercy upon us.

O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world,
Have mercy upon us.

O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world,
Grant us thy peace.

O Christ, hear us.
O Christ, hear us.

Kyrie eleison.
Christe eleison.
Kyrie eleison.

Let us pray.

We humbly beseech thee, O Father, mercifully to look upon our infirmities; and, for the glory of your Name, turn from us all those evils that we most justly have deserved; and grant that in all our troubles we may put our whole trust and confidence in thy mercy, and evermore serve thee in holiness and pureness of living, to thy honor and glory; through our only Mediator and Advocate, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Ghost, be with us all evermore.

Tuesday with Thalia: O Adonai

O Adonai, et dux domus Israel,
qui Moyse in igne flammae rubi apparuisti,
et ei in Sina legem dedisti:
veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.

This is today’s antiphon, one of the Great O antiphons that precede Christmas in the countdown to the birth of Our Lord. I will share a small observation, in the hope that it will comfort those who may read the thoughts of a merry Egotist. There is a great deal of trouble and evil in the world, both on the national scale and on the personal level as well. Times are harsh, children die, wars continue and cars break down.

O Sacred Lord of ancient Israel,
who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush,
who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain:
Come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free.

The translation I used to know said something like “stretch out your arm to save” and I thought of the embrace of a Father. While our Father does fold us in his arms, I think now that I missed something.

This isn’t an appeal to a passive God that waits for us to run to him and then pats us on our head and says “hush, now”. This is a battle cry. This is a terrified bugle call that summons one Stronger than we. This is the shout of the soldier for his Captain. Save me.

This is not a two armed comforting embrace. This is the Hero we call, and he never fails. He rides forth with his arm outstretched to fight the Enemy that seeks to destroy us.

The whole creation pleads.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Messiah Miscellany: Humor in Handel

You can’t spend four autumns singing an oratorio without coming away with some stories about it.  Here are some snippets of things I’ve encountered along the way…

First off, there’s our conductor.  Jerry Blackstone is a beautifully dynamic man, and endlessly fascinating to watch.  This is convenient, as I have not yet met the choral situation which demanded that I look at anyone other than the conductor.  The plasticity of his face and the expression of his baton tell me more than my music (which, inevitably, I still hold up and turn when appropriate without so much as glancing at it).

Like any good music director, Jerry will use whatever cajoling or mental picture or example which proves effective.  Some of his exhortation follows:

(whenever we repeat a phrase) “You can’t sing it the same way twice!  You’re insisting – Did you hear what I said?  And the glory, the glory of the LORD!  It should explode!  It should be really really compelling!”

“The ness of righteousness should sound like Loch Ness.  The –ng of king shouldn’t spread the vowel; sing it as though the word were kitchen.  Don’t let the n sneak into since; the word is city.  THE WORD IS CITY.”

“Listen to you guys.  It’s like you’re afraid to stick out.  If you’re a real tenor, you go ‘I’m gonna stick out.  And they’re gonna hear me.  And it’s gonna be gorgeous.’”

“Not CHOStisement, ‘cause that’s not a word.”

“It’s hard to hide ugliness.  ….yes!  That’s a word that’s language!”

“I hope in Hill we have more vibrancy and more drama…right now it’s a little gentle, as though being taken captive were okay.”

(on how to enunciate “Hallelujah”)  “We’re always going to the lu, so to speak.”

(on the “Amen” part of “Worthy is the Lamb”) “You would sing that differently if you were thinking ‘First Noel’ instead of ‘This is the end of the fugue; I can relax now.’”

Movement 5: Thus Saith the Lord
Thus saith the Lord, the Lord of hosts; Yet once, a little while, and I will shake the heav’ns, and the earth, the sea, and the dry land; And I will shake all nations

My choir director in college told us – right before a performance – how he’d conducted the Jackson Symphony Orchestra and Jackson Chorale for a performance of Messiah once.  Rehearsals had been fairly typical, and none of the soloists had given him any reason for concern.  When it came time for this movement during the performance, however, the baritone soloist suddenly branched out into musical theater or jazz choir: he held up and vigorously shook a hand through every melisma in the movement, stretched out an arm toward the ceiling and the floor to indicate heaven and earth, and even, it seems, fluttered his wrist to indicate the liquid nature of the sea.

We all teased our conductor for sharing this story before we processed in to sing it, as the baritone slated to sing that solo was always a bit of a red-haired wild card, and it did not strain the bounds of anyone’s belief to imagine him imitating the baritone of legend in attitude and gesture.

Raconteurs who shared the story thereafter recognized the unique applicability of this movement to cocktail preparation, which is why I have begun making some effort to learn a recitative I will never perform with an ensemble.

Movement 6: But Who May Abide the Day of His Coming?
But who may abide the day of his coming? And who shall stand when he appeareth?  For he is like a refiner’s fire.

Not much of a story here, sorry; it’s just, whenever I hear this particular air, I want to go back to chemistry class and, you know, burn the dross out of something in a crucible.

Movement 19: Then Shall the Eyes
Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing…

Our organist has a little pastoral scene that he sets up on the organ console in Hill.  He must get a new animal for it every year; he has some 6 or 7 sheep, as well as a miniature stag.  Last week, as the mezzo-soprano sang, Scott was left to his own devices.  His own devices evidently include making the little stag figurine leap, as harts do.

Movement 23: He was despised
He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.  He gave his back to the smiters, and his cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: He hid not his face from shame and spitting.

You probably think I am a horrible person for finding anything amusing in this movement, which typically runs between 7 and 9 minutes on account of the tempo and repetition.  It really ought to be grueling.  However, Thalia once pointed out that “smiters” sounds an awful lot like “spiders,” which, creepy though it sounds, is far less wrenching.

I carefully broached this subject with a fellow soprano on Sunday and she agreed, saying “I’d wondered why Jesus would give his back to the spiders.  Are there even spiders in the Bible?”

(In Job 8 and Isaiah 59, it turns out)

Movement 28: He Trusted in God
He trust in God that he would deliver him; let him deliver him, if he delight in him.

Quite aside from the abundance of third person masculine pronouns, this movement makes me both laugh and cringe because it’s so curiously pleasant to get wrapped up in the persona of a jeering bystander on Golgotha.  I may write more on this topic later; for now, let me just say that Jerry gets so involved and so in character that he begins to resemble John Noble as Denethor:

Jerry Blackstone delighteth mine eyenwordpress, why must you be divorced from the reality of my image-resizing?

Further silliness (and music markings) on the morrow!

A Foretaste of the Feast to Come

So I’m part of this choir that sings Handel’s Messiah in Hill Auditorium every year.  Sometimes that means we sigh at the fact that it’s December again and we’re singing Messiah for the 4th or 10th or 37th time.  Sometimes that means we pass over rehearsing Handel in favor of rehearsing more unfamiliar repertoire; this season, it’s MacMillan’s Tu Es Petrusthe finale of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, and Milhaud’s Oresteia.  Sometimes we hold our scores but never look at them, which can backfire on the odd occasion our conductor makes changes to the dynamics or duration of the notes.

It can get a bit wearing, is what I’m saying.  Singing a piece year after year ought to make it more polished, but I’m convinced I get worse at the melismas every time.  Squishing onto the risers never really gets better.  I typically end up counting how many movements are left.  December doesn’t really get any warmer (well, okay, it did this year.  One-off).  I never get any less liturgically confused.   The Hallelujah Chorus always feels so relaxed and somehow that doesn’t seem right.

And yet, no matter how wearing it gets, the moments remain which remind me why I do this – why I’m part of a choir, why I sing, why music is:  The end and final aim of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.  In high school, we had choir tour shirts with this line from Bach on the back, but it hardly seemed so true then as it does now.

During performances this weekend, that nigh-wearisome familiarity with the score allowed for the music to glorify God and refresh the soul as I’d never before experienced it.  The notes, the rhythms, the dynamics, the diction: they were not abandoned, but observing them was drawn up into conveying the meaning, the truth of words heard so often over the years that we sometimes cease to attend them.  To paraphrase our conductor, each chorus must be sung as though for the first time these words have ever been heard:

For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulders

Glory to God!  Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth.

Surely, surely He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruiséd for our iniquities.  The chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and with His stripes we are healéd. 

Let all the angels of God worship Him!

The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever.

Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive!

Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by His blood, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honor, and glory, and blessing!  Blessing and honor, glory, and power be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne and unto the Lamb.  Amen!

When the final cutoff arrived, it seemed to me that we hadn’t yet sung enough…in fact, it seemed we never could.  The power and verity of those words provided a glimpse of what praising God in perfect heavenly harmony might be like.  To focus one’s energy on the One who is worthy of all praise: this is delight.  This is what we were made for.  This is a foretaste of the feast of thanksgiving to come.