Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Musical Prayers


I apologize to anyone who might have been paying attention to this blog before March of 2016. I've been very focused on life and work in my local setting and not really having the motivation to reflect on-line. I did start writing a couple of times since then, and those drafts are still waiting to be published, but I'm hoping today marks a return to fairly regular blogging about music and life and faith.

A fun privilege of mine as a department chair at a Christian university is that I get to introduce many of our department's concerts and I can do so with prayers.

I find the activities of reading and creating musical prayers to have great potential for integrating faith and musical work since prayer is a means of expressing spirituality. By "spirituality" I mean the personal ways in which we live out our faith on a daily basis.   


I read this excerpt from St. Augustine's "Exposition on Psalm 149" as a prayerful meditation before a recent string ensemble concert. I think I first became aware of this passage while auditing a course on Christian mysticism taught by Stephen Brachlow at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. The text has always struck me as profoundly meaningful.

Let them praise His Name in chorus Psalm 149:3. What means chorus? Many know what a chorus is: nay, as we are speaking in a town, almost all know. A chorus is the union of singers. If we sing in chorus, let us sing in concord. If any one's voice is out of harmony in a chorus of singers, it offends the ear, and throwes the chorus into confusion. If the voice of one echoing discordantly troubles the harmony of them who sing, how does the discord of heresy throw into confusion the harmony of them who praise. The whole world is now the chorus of Christ. The chorus of Christ sounds harmoniously from east to west. Let them sing a psalm unto Him with timbrel and psaltery. Wherefore takes he to him the timbrel and psaltery? That not the voice alone may praise, but the works too. When timbrel and psaltery are taken, the hands harmonize with the voice. So too do thou, whenever you sing, Halleluia, deal forth your bread to the hungry, clothe the naked, take in the stranger: then does not only your voice sound, but your hand sounds in harmony with it, for your deeds agree with your words. You have taken to you an instrument, and your fingers agree with your tongue. Nor must we keep back the mystical meaning of the timbrel and psaltery. On the timbrel leather is stretched, on the psaltery gut is stretched; on either instrument the flesh is crucified. How well did he sing a psalm on timbrel and psaltery, who said, the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world? Galatians 6:14 This psaltery or timbrel He wishes you to take up, who loves a new song, who teaches you, saying to you, Whosoever wills to be My disciple, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. Matthew 16:24 Let him not set down his psaltery, let him not set down his timbrel, let him stretch himself out on the wood, and be dried from the lust of the flesh. The more the strings are stretched, the more sharply do they sound. The Apostle Paul then, in order that his psaltery might sound sharply, what said he? Stretching forth unto those things which are before, etc. Philippians 3:13 He stretched himself: Christ touched him; and the sweetness of truth sounded.

This next prayer by Emily Schmalz, a University of Richmond alumna who was in my first Music Theory IV class, is a favorite of mine this time of year:

You have created my heart to love harmony, 
to melt when two or three voices sing, in perfect tune, praises to You.

I love how we sing in harmony as I spend time with You in prayer 
and I can hear Your gentle, soothing voice of faithful love and care.

Thank You for the exhilarating anticipation that accompanies every dissonance 
and carries with it the promise of a glorious return to sweet harmony.

Thank You for my ear to hear and my voice to create both melody and harmony.

Thank You for the peace I feel 
when I am walking in Your will and our wills are in harmonious accordance.

Thank You for the times of dissonance, too, 
for though they are often times of pain and trial and molding of my heart, 
you always work all things together for good 
—no dissonance is left unresolved— 
You faithfully resolve each and every chord in my life.

And thank You, most of all, God, for sending Christ, 
the great Resolver of the dissonance of this fallen world 
into the perfect harmony of friendship and right standing with You.



And last night, I prayed something along these lines to frame our evening's musical theater revue.

You imagined the universe.

You imagined our world.

You imagined each of us.

And you made us in your image.

We are imaginative.

We are image natives.

We are most at home in your image.

We thank you for the imaginative engagement of theater.

The composer imagines.

The director imagines.

The performer imagines.

The viewer imagines.

Through this shared imagining,

please teach us things you want us to know about life.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Silence, Music, and Deep Prayer 9

Last night's class focused on some important English-speaking and Anglican spiritual masters including Julian of Norwich, Thomas Cranmer, Lancelot Andrewes, and Evelyn Underhill. Dr. Cotton suggested that "Morning Has Broken" might fit nicely with that emphasis, so our musical activities were centered around the tune BUNESSAN (most strongly associated with the text "Morning Has Broken") and texts that have been published with that tune.

This study of BUNESSAN was in keeping with our overall theme of meditation and prayerful music in that we returned again and again to the tune over the course of the evening. We know repetition changes things. The relentless movement of water over a stone carves a new shape. Repetition of information alters our brains. And it is my theory that truths traveling over a familiar pathway might gain an easier welcome to our hearts and more readily redirect us. Perhaps a well-known tune like BUNESSAN could function as such a pathway.

Following up on Dr. Cotton's discussion of the riches of the Book of Common Prayer and its placement of prayer in community (as opposed to primarily in the individual's prayer closet), we briefly considered the fact that most hymns are also envisioned by their authors as expressions of a community and not just of individuals. As a congregation, we direct the words of hymn-writers to God and we exhort one another. Some texts such as "St. Patrick's Breastplate" are more obviously prayers for individuals to pray, however, but that text doesn't seem likely to have been conceived as a congregational song to begin with.

We also noted that the evening's selection of hymn texts demonstrates a bit of parity in that the first three texts are by women and the last three are by men. It has been through the writing of hymns that women have sometimes been allowed to preach over the centuries. 


Bunessan is a tune and a town, and might also be a tone. This post discusses the town and the origin of the tune. It also includes a link to my own arrangement of the tune which was used as a prelude for this session at All Saints'.

A sense of musical space and movement through it is an aspect of experiencing a tune. This involves the range of the pitches in the tune, the tessitura of the tune (that is, which part of that range is utilized the most), and the tune's way of moving (steps, leaps, etc.).

We started our study by humming BUNESSAN and tracing its shape in the air to raise our consciousness about the details of its topography. In doing so, we found that the tune has some steep rises as well as some gently rolling passages, just like the scenery around Bunessan. Over the course of the evening, we explored how the interplay of text and tune might alter our perception of the meaning of this hilliness. 

"Morning Has Broken" 
Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965)

This is the text most often associated with the tune BUNESSAN. It reminds us of Eden and of echoes of Eden in the freshness of each new day. It highlights sunlight which can be considered literally or as a reference to spiritual warmth and illumination. It engages times that are liminal: beginnings and transitions during which great possibilities open to us, times understood to have particular power in Celtic spirituality.

If "Morning is Broken" is the primary text we associate with BUNESSAN, then this Edenic sensibility will be in at least the back of minds as we sing other texts to the tune.

"Child in the Manger"
Mary MacDonald of Mull (1789-1872)

"A devout Baptist, MacDonald wrote hymns and poems in Gaelic which she sang at her spinning wheel." - Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology

This was the first text to be published with the tune. It starts as a lullaby suited to the rocking nature of the music but Jesus reaches adulthood by the second half of the third verse.

To me, the most moving part of the text is the reference to the baby Jesus who was already an "outcast and stranger." I imagine that phrase was MacDonald's starting point and might have come to her while rocking her own little one. Jesus remains an outcast and stranger, perhaps sometimes even among Christians.

We might also note that each verse of this hymn leads to the next. Neither the second nor the third verse can be omitted and the text still make sense. "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" is another such hymn which really won't allow for verses to be skipped. And the skipping of verses is an odd practice, or at least it needs to be engaged in with careful thought. It is unlikely that we would, on a whim, skip a verse of a poem we are reading, but that's done constantly to the poems we call hymns!

"Love is the Sunlight"
Borghild Jacobson (1932-1994)

This is a beautiful text about marriage and about going through the good and the bad together. It seems to be for husbands and wives to sing but could also be something for the Church, as the bride of Christ, to express.

Its immediate reference to sunlight and radiance, as well as the fact that God's love has made the marriage of this text, connect us back to the tune's tone as revealed by "Morning has Broken."

In terms of movement through musical space, this combination of text and tune directs us to the space above us. The highest sounding words like "sunlight," "star bright," "heaven," and "glory" are lifted on the highest notes. The ebbs and flows of the text are further aligned with the tune in that the less grand words at the ends of phrases are sung on long notes in a slightly lower register.

"God the Creator"
John Bell (b.1939)

John Bell is a member of the Iona Community and is "primarily concerned with the renewal of congregational worship at the grassroots level." - Hymnary.org

Bell's text shows the Trinity opening into human community. In a new act of creating something out of nothing, the fullness of the Trinity carries us from nothing-ness, nobody-ness, and nowhere-ness, to loving action in community that reflects the Trinity itself.

This profoundly orthodox idea of just human action proceeding from the relational nature of God is also found in a famous prayer by the founder of the modern Iona Community, George MacLeod. Its jarring language drives home the point that our sense of personal piety might not amount to true service to God in the world.

"Christ, you are within each one of us.

Nearer are you than breathing,

closer than hands and feet.

Ours are the eyes with which you, in the mystery, 

look out with compassion on the world.

Take us outside, O Christ, outside holiness,

out to where soldiers curse and nations clash

at the crossroads of the world.

We ask it for your name's sake.

"O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus"
Samuel Trevor Francis (1834-1925)

Francis was a Plymouth Brethren evangelist and worked as an assistant to Ira Sankey.

The watery words of this text transform the hills of the tune into waves orienting us toward a great space below us. Due to the meter of this text, some syllables are spread over more than one note of the tune. The result is a feeling of rolling as over waves as we sing.

"Christ Beside Me"
adapted by James Quinn

This text, St Patrick's Breastplate, is about Christ permeating, and Christ permeates this text. Christ is the starting point of each of its phrases and instigates every significant movement of the tune. Those movements consist of short notes leading to long notes. The text and tune align in such way that the short notes point to each place we are saying Christ is located.

This text is a circle prayer. Things circular and cyclical are a Celtic focus. Circular prayers are about God's fully surrounding and penetrating presence, and they often invite God's protection. They also suggest the unbroken completeness of God's love. The famous Celtic cross, which probably first appeared on Iona, consists of a cross superimposed on a circle. This represents the cross of Christ fully embracing our world as well as the entire universe beyond it.

This text calls us to explore the space around us and to find God there. We can add another meaningful layer to our prayer by physically exploring the spaces around us as we reference them while singing.

A high cross on Iona


Sunday, March 06, 2016

Silence, Music, and Deep Prayer 8

This evening, we surveyed our Celtic ancestors. We entered into silent meditation following the singing of Henry Baker's paraphrase of Psalm 23 to the tune ST. COLUMBA. Then, Dr. Cotton provided a very helpful framework highlighting the lives of Saints Patrick, Brigid, and David.

The following passage from the opening chapter of Our Anglican Heritage by John Howe and Sam Pascoe might be helpful in developing a sense of the historic Celtic Church.

"The enduring interest in Celtic culture and spirituality both highlights and side-steps the vibrant and vital contribution these early Christians made to the life of the Church. The faith and courage of St. Patrick's missionary efforts to what was then a heathen country still serves as a model for the entire Church. The stirring hymn known to us as 'St. Patrick's Breastplate' reminds us of the spiritual vitality it took to be a missionary in those dangerous days.

"Many historians believe that the Celtic church developed in relative isolation from European and Roman influences. If this is true, it may account for its distinctly rigorous temperament. It was much more egalitarian than the hierarchical church that developed on the continent under the shadow of the hierarchical Roman Empire. The European church took its form from the Empire's elegant but complex governmental structure. Celtic Christianity was more 'earthy,' more conscious of humanity's place as part of creation and less focused on the role of humans as temporal lords over it. It was also focused on the authority of local monks and monasteries as compared to the European model which focused authority in a more rigid 'chain of command' and which often looked to distant rulers who occupied ecclesiastical offices."
A view of Iona Abbey from the slope of Dun I
Columba and Iona

The musical portion of our evening focused on stories of St. Columba and short piano pieces I composed for a piano curriculum based on those stories.

A scholar friend of mine recently told me that a scholar friend of hers was looking for a St. Columba puppet. It occurred to me that Columba has become a bit of a puppet for whatever one wants to assert as being a Celtic manifestation of Christianity. The stories of Columba are many, rich, and varied which makes them well-suited for anyone wanting to promote their own idea of a Celtic Christian way. And so I acknowledge that the picture of Columba that I present is my version based on the stories I find helpful. 

My goal for the evening was to introduce Columba and his environment with an eye to concluding our time together with a special prayer experience shared imaginatively with him, as it were.

A capital in Iona's cloister

Columba's name means "dove" and according to his primary biographer, Adomnan, (the ninth abbot of Iona) it was fitting that Columba should have such a name as "through his dove-like life he offered in himself a dwelling for the Holy Spirit."

We listened to the piece "His Name Was Dove" which consists of simple drifting gestures suggestive of a bird gliding on currents of air. I believe it is in keeping with the Celtic spirit to take that gliding to heart. The effortless action of that trusting bird is not a naturalistic phenomenon to be objectively observed but it describes and invites a mode of being which is waiting to be engaged within us. 

This simple prayer is emblematic of the Celtic embrace of the permeation and imbeddedness of God's address to humanity within and without what we tend to understand as our selves:

"Creator God
Three in One
Fill my mind
Fill my heart
Fill this place"

Kathy and I filmed this video in Iona Abbey. It includes several of the pieces shared this evening. "His Name Was Dove" is first. 

Getting There

These days, no one goes to Iona by accident. Our journey involved two plane rides, a long train ride, a big ferry, a bus across the island of Mull, and a little ferry out to Iona. It's about as far out as one can go that way, but in Columba's day it was a center of activity and the water around it was essentially a major highway.

The intentionality required to get there today contributes to the feeling that Iona is a "thin place," a place, according to Celtic tradition, where the partition between this world and the spirit world is thinner than in other places. Virtually everyone traveling to Iona is on a pilgrimage and is seeking revival and deeper connection with God which creates expectancy and synergy - and no one seems disappointed by the outcome. At the very least, a steady stream of such visitors makes it a thin place.

I shared two pieces/stories about Columba, the brothers, and the water which, in  addition to being their highway, was also a character and a colleague in their lives.

On one occasion, Columba and the men (many of whom were his relatives) were caught in the swelling waves of a storm at sea. Columba calmed the storm and the boat was suddenly at the shore. This reminds us of a similar miracle of Jesus and that is a typical means for underscoring the intense holiness of a saint. "Swelling Waves" begins around 1:40 in the video above.

On another occasion, a friend of the men was trapped in the notorious Whirlpool of Corrywrecken. Columba alerted the men to this fact and they wanted to intercede in prayer. Columba informed them that God was holding their friend in the whirlpool to deepen his prayer. While I'm not enthused about the idea of God holding a person in a whirlpool, this story does acknowledge that God is with us in and through our struggles and that our path is not always one of being delivered in the ways we might envision.

As we listen to these and other pieces we might wonder how best to listen. I am fond of this quotation from Henry Nouwen found in a reworking of notes from his lectures in the book Spiritual Direction. I think it provides a perspective for listening to, practicing, and playing music as a spiritual discipline.

"Almost anything that regularly asks us to slow down and order our time, desires, and thoughts to counteract selfishness, impulsiveness, or hurried fogginess of mind can be a spiritual discipline."

As we relate to a work of music, we encounter something that is other than us, thus counteracting our self-orientation. As we follow the music's unfolding, we find a focus and a rhythm that stabilize us over against our impulsive tendencies. And as we listen to the logic of the sounds, our thinking can be calmed and clarified.


One saintly friend of Columba's always seemed to add a little humor to the goings-on. St. Cainnech had a few clumsy incidents and was a little forgetful, but none of that mattered because of his earnest devotion and his undeniable in-sync-ness with the Spirit.

On one occasion, he forgot his staff before a journey requiring Columba to teleport it to his destination. At another time, Columba and the brothers were in a storm at sea and the brothers desperately wanted Columba to pray for them. Columba refused saying that it was for Cainnech to pray at this time. Meanwhile, many miles away, Cainnech heard Columba's words in his heart, leaped up from the dinner table, and ran to the chapel to pray with only one shoe on!

This story of Columba's refusal to pray speaks to me of his concern for community and for the spiritual experience and growth of all those around him. There is a beautiful mutuality about his choice to depend on the presence of God's power in others.

Gravestones at St. Oran's Chapel

God's Power

Columba's ministry was characterized by a tremendous power of God in his person and in his acts. Many were converted upon seeing such manifestations. Two stories emphatically convey that Godly power which was at work immeasurably over and above the intentions of the saint and his friends.

On one occasion, a monk stopped by Columba's hut so that he could bless a knife. It was a common custom for objects, as well as food, to be blessed by the Abbot and he did so this time without lifting his eyes from the work with which he was already involved. Later in the day, Columba asked the monk what it was that he had blessed. "A knife," the monk replied. Then Columba informed him that the knife would no longer be of any use. Upon further examination, it was found that God's power in this peaceable man had rendered the knife incapable of piercing skin. So they melted down the knife and use the blessed metal to coat all of the tools of the monastery so that they might not hurt anyone. "The Blessed Knife" begins around 3:00 in the video above.        

In another story, the son of a chieftain had forcibly taken a cow from a nun who had refused to trade the cow. The chieftain was displeased with his son's behavior and executed him, a choice he soon regretted. He went to Columba for help and Columba directed him to an old monk, Began of Ulster. The chieftain was afraid to go to Began alone, so Columba went with him. Began prayed three times and Hell relinquished fifty men each time by the same name of his son! His actual son was resurrected with the final group.
Once again we see Columba not solving problems on his own but in collaboration with his community and being a companion to the chieftain along the way.

Early morning sun on Iona

Those around Columba reported a sense of light about him - perhaps a halo or an aura - a radiance suggesting God's hand on his life. A monk who raised him saw an orb above his crib, and one of the brothers who hid in the chapel while Columba prayed late one night witnessed the room fill with light. 

Another prayer invokes the way of Columba, as well as light and darkness, as a blessing for a home.

"God's peace and man's peace and Saint Columba's peace
be on each window and on each door,
every place where moonlight enters in,
on all four corners of your home
and on the place you lay your head
may God's peace be with you."

This can serve as a picturesque prayer for the bungalows, ranches, or condos in which we live. But it's also a prayer for the houses of our souls, our bodies. I encourage rereading those old, old words remembering that Celtic Christianity was "more earthy" and recognized that we are creatures of clay in and around which souls reside.

The Hermit's Hollow
The Hermit's Hollow

Musical tones were the catalyst for our final prayer time. My aleatoric piece, "The Hermit's Hollow," was inspired by experiences with solitude and silent prayer, reading about Elijah and his time in the cave, and a visit to the far side of the mountain Dun I where it is conjectured that Columba slipped away from time to time for some quiet union with God. The piece is in two parts, the first using active musical materials to suggest wind, earthquake, and fire such as Elijah might have experienced while waiting to meet with God. The second part consists of seven individual pitches chosen randomly. The performer and listeners are invited to follow each pitch into silence where they might encounter the "still small voice" of God.

"Loss Faith," an earlier blog-post, could be of interest for those wanting to know more about the background of "The Hermit's Hollow."  

Monday, February 29, 2016

Silence, Music, and Deep Prayer 7

This evening, we surveyed a bit of the monastic contribution to contemplative prayer and the prayerful music of our friend Brother Stefan Waligur.

I was assisted with some of the singing by soprano Blair Boak, a recent graduate of Southeastern. She started our musical time with a beautiful rendering of Stefan's "Consider the Lilies," which is a setting of Jesus' admonition to trust in God's provision as conveyed in Matthew 6. The song is also a moving expression of the trust to which a monk, and particularly an itinerant one, is called.

Listen here to another friend, Sarah Jessop, sing "Consider the Lilies" with the composer at the piano. (Some participants in our class, as well as readers of this blog, might be interesting in purchasing recordings of Stefan's music. Those can be ordered here.)

A favorite picture with Stefan
Stefan Waligur

Kathy and I met Stefan a little over ten years ago at Andrew's House, the house of hospitality for Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C.. Stefan was the only other person staying there on that occasion and he bravely and compassionately came to check on us one morning because we had been violently coughing all night. He shared a CD of his music and we found that listening to his music almost instantaneously drew us into a sense of God’s presence. I was inspired by the vision behind his CD, and my experience of it helped to end a creative block regarding composition that had frustrated me for a long time. Since then, we have been involved with Stefan in planning various concerts, retreats, and school visits.
Stefan is from Buffalo, NY where music had a tremendously positive role in his youth. He went on to study music and theology in various settings, worked as a minister and then as a chaplain at American University. He has taught at Memphis Theological Seminary and has pursued extensive studies in Celtic traditions. He’s now an oblate of a Benedictine community and lives out his monasticism through poverty, celibacy, and activism expressed by peacemaking and proclaiming God’s love.

It seems to me that Stefan's work en-musics the late Gordon Cosby's call to "be with the poor." While Stefan was trained in the traditions of Classical concert music, his great contribution is in the area of worshipful music that is accessible to participation by all. Indeed, it focuses us on being together, not just with professional singers and instrumentalists who read notes quite well, but also with those neighbors who don't have the skills to read words in their native tongue. It is music for those with comfortable homes in which to sing but also for those who sing day and night in the cold on the street. It creates a space for the Spirit to extend hospitality to everyone whether they be believers, seekers, or non-believer's, and whether we see them as friends or enemies.
Here is an excerpt from Stefan's website describing his distinctive musical style:

"After a life-changing visit to the Taize Community in France (he) began to write music in a similar style . . . but incorporating American rhythms and harmonies, Celtic tunes, and the call and response style of Indian ragas." 

Our worship this evening

This evening, we worship following the organization of the Mass Ordinary so as to reveal more layers of meaning in our experience of Stefan's music. Most of the songs we sing come from his collection, Songs of Peace, which includes music composed for a weekly meeting of homeless men.

In recent weeks, our own Father Reid has been stressing that Christianity is intensely counter-cultural. He has reminded us that, “There are lots of reasons to hate people, but no biblical ones,”and that being driven by wealth and possessions is clearly not what Jesus what calls us to.

These words are easy to understand, and we might prefer to file them away in some safe corner of our minds. But they need to move from the head to the heart so they can shape the way we live. The mood and repetition of Stefan’s music are intended to slow us down in such a way that the words can make that vital journey.

In the foreword to Songs of Peace, Stefan writes:

"Essentially these are songs to be prayed; in other words, sung prayer: an ever essential human expression, both ancient and ever new. Their chant-like repetition invites us into a prayer of the heart which transcends words, and brings us to that place of encounter. This is a place of humanity fulfilled, a way of being, an openness, a universal love. It is that original childlike trust and delight in God; in the midst of all things, the peace of God."

"Lord Have Mercy" 
page 36 in Songs of Peace

It occurs to me that we need to pray for mercy for many things, not just for our sins as individuals.

We need mercy to face the complexities of our lives –

mercy for dealing with thoughts and feelings that we're not sure we can share without being judged

mercy for processing things we’ve seen or heard that we might not be able to talk about with anyone

mercy for coping with things that have been done to us

And we need to pray for mercy for the whole world, for issues of suffering and unrest on a global scale.

Many of Stefan's prayerful pieces end on inconclusive, open-ended cadences. This is is so that, even when the singing stops, the prayer might continue within us. 

"When I Listen to You" 

Appropriate to both the Gloria and the Credo, the message of "When I Listen to You" is one of God's glory and peace on earth. It also coveys something very important for us to believe.

On Sunday, we heard these sublime words which are a part of Eucharistic Prayer D:

"It is truly right to glorify you, Father, and to give you thanks;
for you alone are God, living and true, dwelling in light
inaccessible from before time and for ever.

Fountain of life and source of all goodness, you made all
things and fill them with your blessing; you created them to
rejoice in the splendor of your radiance."

God is radiant and sometimes we discover that aspect of God's image in the radiance of a child, a spouse, or a friend. This discovery stirs our tenderness and we desire to be kind to those radiant ones. This stirring of tenderness might also remind us of the intimacy with which God made us. 

Our challenge is to expand this caring gaze in the Spirit beyond those whose radiance has stirred our tenderness, beyond those who are easy for us to love –

to the co-worker who aggravates us with issues that are not the priority they think they are

and to the person who shares our church pew but not our political view . . .
If we find it a struggle to build our ethics on the fundamental fact that humanity is made in God's image as described in Genesis, we might find Jesus' way of putting very motivating. I wonder how literally we take this passage.

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ - from Matthew 25

"We Are Beloved of God" 
page 45

This song expresses the essence of the Sanctus and the Benedictus as it celebrates the sanctifying love of the holy Christ in becoming one of us.

As Stefan puts it, this song addresses two questions: 
Who am I? 


Who is God?

Our answers to these questions indicate something about how much we truly believe God loves us.   

Stefan's points out that "Jesus’ baptism answers these questions and his baptism is our experience."

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” - from Mark 1

Stefan writes:

"As we begin to see ourselves as beloved children of God, we see our true selves. This song came from reflecting on the moment in Jesus’ life when he heard the voice of God saying to him, “You are my beloved child.” When we listen, we, too, hear these deeply beautiful words addressed to our own hearts."

Agnus Dei
"Lamb of God" 
In his Celtic Mass, Stefan seeks to quicken the deep pulse of Irish folk-song within the walls of the Church. He sets this "Lamb of God" to a tune by Turlouch O’Carolan who was a blind itinerant harpist at the turn of the 18th century. I imagine Stefan feels some affinity with O'Carolan as a traveling retreat leader and musician.

Similar to Alice Parker’s setting of the Agnus Dei, Stefan’s setting emphasizes the lamb-ness of Jesus to shift our minds and hearts away from violent images.

In Revelation 5 we learn that, of all the possibilities, it is the Lamb who will be worshiped by the beasts and the elders with harps and prayers of saints. It is the that slain lamb that “ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands of angels proclaim to be “Worthy to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing.”

And at the heart of the Mass, the sacredness of this non-violent Lamb has been enshrined for centuries. 

"All Shall Be Well" 
page 24

We conclude our evening by singing the famous comforting words of the 14th/15th century mystic, Julian of Norwich. Between choruses, we read further excerpts from her Revelations of Divine Love, chosen for the occasion by Dr. Cameron Hunt McNabb. These are copied below.

"Our Lord showed me a spiritual vision of his familiar love. I saw that for us he is everything that we find good and comforting. He is our clothing, wrapping us for love, embracing and enclosing us for tender love, so that he can never leave us, being himself everything that is good for us." - Chapter 5

"Where truth and wisdom truly are, there is truly love coming from both of them, and all of God's making; for he is supreme unending truth, supreme unending wisdom, supreme unending love, uncreated; and man's soul is a creature within God which has these same qualities in a created form, and it always does what it was made for: it sees God, it contemplates God, and it loves God." - Chapter 44

"And from the time that this was shown, I often longed to know what our Lord meant. And fifteen years and more later my spiritual understanding received an answer, which was this: 'Do you want to know what your Lord meant? Know well that love was what he meant. Who showed you this? Love. What did he show? Love. Why did he show it to you? For love. Hold fast to this and you will know and understand more of the same; but you will never understand or know from it anything else for all eternity.'" - Chapter 86

With Blair Boak and Dr. Rickey Cotton

Friday, February 19, 2016

Silence, Music, and Deep Prayer 6

Silences of Lent

While we have been cultivating an interior silence in this course, tonight I would like to explore the physical and metaphorical silences and silencings of Lent. While doing so, we will re-emphasize themes of pilgrimage and God’s transcendence.

Bracketed by Silence

The Lenten journey begins with the procession into the Ash Wednesday service. As the procession enters, we stand in silence. We do not beautify the moment with singing or bells or organ music. Instead, we watch as the cross passes by without a sound. If you are like me, you sometimes wonder if the cross is going on without you or if you are truly following.

We feel these quiet moments in something akin to slow motion. Their silence lets us know that something out of the ordinary is beginning.

By the time Lent is drawing to a close on Maundy Thursday, we will have learned much more about the journey. The solemn and mysterious silence of Ash Wednesday will become a shocked silence of disbelief as we see where the journey has led. We will leave the sanctuary without a word.


We begin Lent at the end of ourselves. Our Ash Wednesday liturgy starts us on the Lenten path by repeatedly asserting that, someday soon, we will be nothing but dust again. At that time, no one will be hearing anything else from us.


On Ash Wednesday, we also stop saying “alleluia” in worship. That special worship word goes underground and we pretend we've never heard it.

“Alleluia” is a transliteration from Hebrew and is an exhortation to praise God. It is a word that emphasizes that God is the self-existent One, and it is used by those in God’s presence in Revelation 19. When we say it, we celebrate the fact that the kingdom of God has come. But in Lent, (just as in Advent) we recognize that the fullness of the Kingdom is yet to come, that some aspects of God’s reign are not complete. Thus, we wait until Easter to say “alleluia” again.

In the Desert

On the first Sunday of Lent, we hear that the Spirit drove Jesus into the desert, a place of relative physical silence. Those who visit such wilderness places are struck by their qualities of “silence as eternal as time itself. Silence for thinking deep thoughts, or for simply existing, hanging suspended in a sea of canyons and cliffs, of life and of death.”

Angels ministered to Jesus after his temptations, but it doesn’t seem that God was particularly present to him during his experiences of being tempted. That fits with the broader picture of temptation in the Bible as well as our own experiences. The psalmist repeatedly describes a sense of abandonment when in need, and today, we find that temptations are not really tests of our moral fiber, occasions to which we can rise. Real temptations come when we feel powerless, alone, and maybe even unsupported by God. Ideally, we respond by pursuing God, and that changes us. Dietrich Bonhoeffer explores this dynamic in his Biblical study Temptation.


Sometimes, when we feel we’ve lost track of the voice of God, we are drawn into doubting and fear, but occasional doubts might not really merit our panic.

Being made in God’s image, we are imaginative. Our brains routinely ask “What if?” Much of the time, those what-if questions help us. For example, as we drive we consider, “What if that car veers into my lane?” Such questions prepare us for possibilities. As part of our what-if habit, we sometimes wonder, “What if God isn’t really there?” Posing such questions is just something the brain does like dreaming or remembering. There’s really nothing alarming about it.

In addition, our thoughts and feelings are not going to be able to apprehend the essence of the transcendent God. If it seems that they can, then the thing we’re calling “God” must not actually be transcendent. Traditionally, wordless prayer has been a mode of opening oneself to that inscrutable nature of God’s being.

4'33" is the most famous work of the highly imaginative composer John Cage and consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of no notes. Cage had experimented with a method for generating notes and rests to fill in different segments of time and it occurred to him that this method would eventually generate a piece that was all rests and no notes. 4’33” is a philosophical challenge, a joke, and an invitation to meditation, all rolled into one. Related to his work and these concepts, Cage liked to say, “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.”

Since thoughts and language collapse as we reach out to the essence of God, this “having nothing to say” is appropriate as we try to approach that being.

Such silence might also be relevant during certain gaps between the sounds of our worship. The spaces between verses of hymns, the purely instrumental offerings, and times of prayer when there is no one recommending what we are to think are all times when, realizing no words will measure up, we can offer God our silence, and maybe God can get in a word edgewise.

When experiencing doubts, I think it is wise also to consider that we are traveling with God. Whether I am thinking or feeling or believing well on any given day, that relationship continues. Whether I think I am on the right path or feel I am wandering, the same God is caring about me and has a bird’s eye view of the whole journey. John Ylvisaker's beautiful hymn I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry conveys the sweetness of this truth.

Out of joint

We find ourselves wanting the things we shouldn’t and struggling to get ourselves to want the things we should. A world that teeters on the edge chaos much of the time is the result of each and every one of us experiencing that dynamic. Those of us who have the means to do so often try to arrange our lives so we don’t have to notice it too much, but there are times when silences stop our self-deception. Such silences are Lenten silences in that they lead through brokenness.

You speak to the tombstone with a name on it like your own, but no sound ever comes back. Something went wrong and can never be fixed.

The doctor says the chances of a meaningful recovery for your loved one are nil. You check the dictionary to make sure “nil” means what you’re afraid it does before you make the decision the hospital has been pressuring you to make. The next day, devices that kept the kidneys, lungs, and heart going are unplugged and those particular half-human/half-machine sounds subside forever.

Then, having put your hopes in the possibilities of a miraculous and unexpected new life, no heartbeat can be detected by the ultrasound.

Those are just normal occurrences on our planet today, things that happen to me or around me.

But there are people in our communities whose torment and terror we only begin to understand in our nightmares. They feel like they live in claustrophobic tombs where their vision is useless and they can hardly breathe. And when they reach for the one hand they've always trusted, it isn't there. 

We have a phrase for that.

“My God, My God. Why have you forsaken me?”

Maybe the silences that follow tragedies and surround perpetual traumas provide the space necessary for us to begin to hear a word from God. But I think Jesus suffers in those silences with us, and in the fullness of his hurting humanity, he joins us in the loss for words.

Sometimes our hymns dress Jesus up like a powerful warrior with armor and a horse. But prayerful music tells us he suffers with us, and that's a truth that ministers to us in the here and now. Here's an example of a re-writing of a militant hymn that sounds more like the way Jesus behaved when he was among us.

The Journey

As we get closer to Easter, there’s more silence, especially around Jesus.

As in the desert, it doesn’t seem that he hears from God in the garden. In that picturesque place, his anxiety is excruciating.

And when he turns to the sleeping disciples, he just hears crickets.

When he’s betrayed, the disciples flee and the sounds of their voices disappear altogether.

Jesus has very little to say before Pilate, and Pilate takes note of his silence.

Except for some shorthand references to Psalms, Jesus says virtually nothing for himself on the cross. He becomes more and more silent, finally emptying himself of everything with a child’s prayer “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

A Musical Journey

Franz Liszt’s “After a Reading of Dante” from his collection of piano pieces Years of Pilgrimage, is a work I travel with in life. Pianist friends who play this music agree that it is something you return to in many seasons and discover new and deeper layers of meaning.

Thought to be inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Inferno in particular, the music begins with a series of stark descending tri-tones appropriate to the mood of entering the realm of Satan. Throughout this introduction, Liszt incorporates silences to increase the sense of suspense and dread.

The first theme, really more of an unending moan than a melody, has virtually no silences. It might suggest the scene in Dante’s second circle in which souls, driven by their passions to sin, are relentlessly buffeted by the winds of a storm.

This theme returns many times, and on one occasion, it is transformed to the point that we are transfixed by the beauty of its halting new setting which causes us to forget its painful origins. I played this piece on my undergraduate senior recital in the old North Hall at Peabody. North Hall was several stories above the streets of Baltimore and it overlooked the parks of Mt. Vernon Place. The one most memorable moment of that recital for me was the sound of a siren making its way through the windows as I played that exquisite version of the theme. Sounds of the real pain of the world found their way to us even in that elegant, seemingly insulated time and place.

A theme of salvation and healing comes out of another Liszt's great suspenseful silences. It sounds as if from some impossibly distant location. That passage reminds me of an incident in my father’s life, a rare occasion on which he felt he might have heard an actual voice from God. While drowsily waiting in the car on a warm afternoon, he heard a voice say, “The healing is coming.” He had been struggling for a number of years with intense asthma attacks, so he initially received those words as a heartening message that physical relief was on the way. Eventually, that relief did come, but years later, we realized that the healing was actually about much deeper personal pains, It reversed some disruptive occurrences in his career that had deeply affected our life as a family. People and plans we had no idea about at the time of his hearing those words were the catalysts for that healing.

For me, the most profound moment of the Christian year at All Saints’ follows the Maundy Thursday service. It’s part of the stripping of the altar, which is an event that suggests some of the abuse Jesus experienced on the way to the cross. Over the course of fifteen minutes, each element is removed as we look on. At the end, the bare altar is revealed, and on it, we see the words, "Holy Holy Holy."

Those words have been inscribed there since before the first day any of us walked into the church, but they are almost always covered. The revelation of those words on the altar says to me that, when all else had been stripped away from Jesus – his clothing, his dignity, his life - his essence of holiness remained. 

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Silence, Music, and Deep Prayer 5

“The circle begins when a song is sung – newly created or recreated.

A composer makes up a song, writing it into being.
A reader takes up the page, transposing it back into mental sound.
The performer moves the mental sound into physical sound.
A listener hears the song and joins the circle.

The circle is complete when the creator, performer, and listener 
are made one through the song.

Can you complete the circle each time you sing?”

- a challenge from Alice Parker’s The Anatomy of Melody

Kathy with Alice Parker at Hymn Society in 2015


We started the musical portion of the evening by considering the idea that, while  stirring hymn singing can inspire us in the moment and change us over time as a strong element of corporate worship, prayerful music has power to redirect our hearts.

As we repeatedly pass through the words and shapes of a work of prayerful music, we are drawn deeper and deeper into its message. In the process, we often find:

a sense of the Spirit’s “still small voice”
a change in our perspective
a reorientation to God’s love

At times, these experiences anchor us and help us to live better.

Throughout the night, we explored Alice Parker’s Glorious God and aspects of Christian community. Glorious God is a canonic work and consists of single lines of melody which, when sung in canon, create rich chords and tone-clusters that are highly expressive of community and transcendence. 

A brief theological basis for this emphasis on community

While the Trinity is a mystery, it seems reasonable to think that a world as interdependent as ours must be the creative work of “God in three persons” 

- a God who can and does model love within His own being 

- a being in whose image humanity is created

Thus, cooperation, community, and recognition of the elements of Creation’s interconnectedness could be fundamental to our existence.

Community with Alice

Alice Parker attained notoriety through her work with Robert Shaw and is universally respected for her musical genius and greatness of spirit. As a follow-up on our study, and as we enter the season of Lent, I recommend considering Aice Parker's words in this moving musical sermon. 

Kathy and I have had the privilege of being with Ms. Parker, first on her farm in Massachusetts where Kathy was studying song-leading, then on several occasions at various conferences. 

Musicians who travel to study on her farm sit around a table in her house and gain deeper knowledge of how to respond to musical lines and to each other. They gain this knowledge by making music together with Ms. Parker's guidance.

One night, I had the privilege of walking Ms. Parker back to her house on the mountain, and with just a few words - words I don't even remember - she changed my understanding of how to compose and freed me from some of the most significant things that had been blocking my work.  I am certain she has done the same for many, many others.

Glorious God

Not being Catholic, Ms. Parker sought a text for her Mass that would follow the essential shape of the Mass but would highlight certain facets of her own theology. Amy Jo Shoonover provided such a text.

The Kyrie is Trinitarian and addresses God as glorious, loving, and healing. The focus is on being brought together by a God like that as one enters worship with this text. 

We quickly learned the tune of this Kyrie by rote and that prompted some discussion about how many of us are bound to the page which can sometimes degrade the quality of our actual listening. Thus, we almost immediately saw the spiritual ramifications of working in the way that Ms. Parker usually does: learning to sing by listening to one another makes us very aware of how well we do or do not listen. A good practice of listening is something we need for developing healthy community.

After Dr. Cotton shared some teaching on silence and on how we might consider the thoughts that come to us as we are offering our silence to God as an offering, we sang the Kyrie again and discovered that, while we might have felt tentative as individuals, as a group, we knew it better than we thought we did. This speaks of the importance of community and also suggests something of the profundity of Ms. Parker’s work. The following passage from her book The Anatomy of Melody (p. 121) explains her aims in composing.   

“When rhythm, pitch, and word combine in just the right proportions, an organism like a living form results. This form is balanced within and cohesive without, pulsing with life. It is a whole with a beginning, middle, and end. It sets up an expectation and fulfills it . . . It seems inevitable. It lasts.

“Melodies that endure are like fundamental physical forms: cloud, stream, tree. They have a rightness in which each element is subordinate to the whole and everything works together for structural unity.”

Producing work like this is a lofty goal that requires humility on the part of the composer and the music. The composer’s hand should be discrete to the point that the music seems to have always existed as a part of Creation, and no moment in the music should draw undue attention to itself upsetting the sense of wholeness.

A series of excerpts from The Anatomy of Melody helps us think through the link between singing and community. On page 186, three paragraphs end with these wonderfully insightful sentences.

1. “The trick is to anticipate what the singers need in energy or beat or accent or mood.”

Here she is describing what has been shared by leaders of singing in various cultures and times. Leading singing is an act of community that involves great sensitivity and well-calibrated response on the part of the leader.

2. "We don’t progress further until the singers have realized that they must listen and allow their voices to join the sound of the whole group."

This is Ms. Parker’s modus operandi. She expects the level of engagement with one another through sound to be high. All will move together and do so well, or no forward movement will occur. Ms. Parker maintains this approach in a remarkably gentle but demanding way.

3. “If it’s well-taught, it is cradled in the singers’ inmost memory.”

Full participation in performance that is beautiful is the destination. The whole process moves incrementally and with liveliness toward that point of arrival.

As we discussed during our first night of our class, information can become deeply embedded in the human brain through musical means. Ms. Parker is modeling how to treat that process as a holy endeavor.

Next we turned our attention to the Sanctus and Benedictus.

This portion of Ms. Parker’s Mass begins “Holy, Holy, Holy unimaginable Pow’r.”

This power is unimaginable in magnitude. We simply cannot frame in our minds the power of the “Maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.

But it is also a power unimaginable in quality. We are unable to envision a power that cannot be corrupted or become oppressive but is willing to make itself vulnerable, instead.

Finally, the text does not say that God has this power. God is this power.

As we sang this portion in canon and seated in a circle, we discovered that the words “unimaginable power” form a continuous ring throughout the music that lifts the singers into worship of the eternal and transcendent God.

We briefly discussed the following line: “Earth and Heav’n sing your praise. Osanna.” “Earth and Heav’n” is clearly text-painted with an arpeggio ascending from “Earth” to “Heav’n,” and “Osanna” is a word of praise with overtones of deliverance.

Still seated in a circle, we concluded our evening by singing a portion of the Agnus Dei. The text begins, “Lamb, Lamb, Lamb of God who bears our burdens: Forgive our sin.”

I think this repetition of “Lamb” has potential for causing us to consider that this liberation is achieved by a means that is also unimaginable to us. The thought is extraordinary. This liberation is achieved not by a military force, not by a strong leader, not by a brilliant preacher, not even by a good liturgy – but by a lamb that was slain. One who did not defend himself bears our burdens and forgives our sins.

Some readers might enjoy this video which shows pictures of Ms. Parker's farm accompanied by the first movement ("Mountains") of my symphony named for her farm. Inspired by Ms. Parker's commitment to participatory music-making, this little symphony was written for an ensemble of amateur and beginner string players along with a clarinet and a horn. The sweet horn playing was done by Kathy Hulin.