Monday, December 19, 2005

The Church in Exile

Here are some pictures taken at Trinity Episcopal Church in Seattle. The cameras were out yesterday because Sunday was the final day of worship in the parish hall. On Christmas Eve the congregation will return to the historic sanctuary that has been undergoing restoration due to damages incurred in the Nasquale earthquake five years ago. For a church of a couple of hundred active members to raise six million dollars to repair this old church is quite a feat. Interestingly enough, a sizable portion of the money comes from the government in the form of a FEMA grant, and the rationale for the grant includes the proportion of the church budget that can be designated social services. In a church where there were mostly dour faces after the re-election of George W. Bush, there are now people who don't want to mention the Republican Faith Based Initiative, which made possible federal funding of churches that subsidize social services the government would otherwise have to support.


This picture was taken during the final cadence of an anthem celebrating the annunciation. Conductor Martin Olson has persisted for more than twenty years at this urban church. Choir and conductor have survived the various jurisdictions imposed by bishops, priests, and priestesses. The earthquake was a minor shock compared to some of the clerical administrations the choir has outlasted. The exile of the faithful to the parish hall, as was sermonized yesterday, can be considered the work of an angel of mercy. The foundation under historic Trinity, laid in the nineteenth century, was discovered during repairs to have been a disaster waiting to happen, and a large and failing steam pipe that was still conducting heat to the sanctuary five years ago could have blown away half the parishioners at any time.


Photos by Paul Hannah

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Flying under Wires

I had an unnerving dream this morning about 5:00 AM. I can’t blame it on anything pharmacological, Ray, or anything I ate. I was in an airplane taking off from an airstrip someplace out in the country. Another plane came alongside. I was afraid there was going to be a collision, but the other plane veered off and ascended out of sight. Then the plane I was riding in flew under some electrical wires hanging from telephone poles. We got past the wires, but we didn’t ascend. It became apparent that there were more wires to fly under, so it was a good thing the pilot had not tried to climb. As soon as we passed under these wires, there were more poles and wires. We didn’t hit any wires, but as far as I could see there were more poles and wires. We continued to fly at low altitude. There seemed no end to this. The wires were a menace. I felt only dread that this was the trajectory for the foreseeable future. It was a dream world subjected to futility.

Some months ago I began posting these essays under the heading still visible above: Alienated in Church. At the time this blog was a monologue. The earliest comment is still there, accusing me of being a Luddite and an elitist snob.

Most of my life I’ve been a Christian and for nearly as many years I’ve been a church musician. I have tried to think of church as a place where it is just as important to contribute something as to benefit in the various ways people benefit from church attendance. I invested considerable time and money in a master’s degree in theology, thinking that since the church has my heart, I might find a place to work productively in some aspect of ministry. It has become more and more apparent that what I have to offer is not much in demand in the currently fashionable ministries of the church.

I earn a good living in technology. My wife doesn’t have to work to keep us financially solvent. It would seem that we have time and skills that could be put to good use on a volunteer basis in church. For the past ten years or so, in several different churches, we have encountered clergymen, and others guarding their turf, who don’t want us to do much. I joke about being able to sing in the Episcopal Church but not to speak. As long as I have been at my current church, even while I was a member of the vestry, the rector and I have never had a disagreement. This is because he does most of the talking. I don’t have many opportunities to contradict him.

I ended up in the Episcopal Church on the rebound from a conservative Presbyterian Church five blocks away in downtown Seattle where I was a section leader in the choir. They fired me on the basis of an essay I read in a Sunday School class. It’s posted here in the April archive under the title Reformation Sunday. In retrospect it doesn’t seem an inflammatory piece, but several people with influence were offended by it and by my interest in having a discussion about music that they wanted to get behind them.

I had ended up in the Presbyterian Church on the rebound from the Catholic Church where I was confirmed. There the priest, who admitted he hated musicians, decided I wouldn’t be a cantor anymore because I sang too loud. The church was a big as an airplane hanger, but my operatic sound was objectionable to some. The church also had a marvelous organ that Father G. said the people “hated”. Interestingly enough, Father G. was a traditionalist. If, occasionally, somebody who had been involved in charismatic worship somewhere else raised their hands in praise, Father G. had given the ushers instructions, and they were escorted out. We didn’t do worship that way at St. Alphonsus. The church had a pretty good choir with salaried section leaders. That’s, of course, how I had ended up there.

Church has been controversial in my family since before I was born. My father is Italian and my mother Norwegian. Maybe it’s fitting that I’ve been hanging out in Henry the Eighth’s compromised Episcopal Church where, if I choose, I can hear Native American drumming and, probably, soon Hindu chant. I’m singing again, occasionally, in the Catholic Church. I mean, it’s fine to be inclusive, but I’ve already been in a heterosexual minority in the opera world. I’ve heard it said that networking is fine if you’re in the network and not so fine when you’re not. The Episcopal Church seems intent on following Tony Kushner’s motif in making homosexuals moral exemplars for our time, angels, no less, in America. I saw the first of the Kushner’s plays, so I may have to opt out for the reprise in church.

That brings me back to square one and the first post in this blog back in March:

Feeling a little strange in church these days?
Like you better not say what you think?
Guitars drive you up the walls?
Tired of Bush bashing jokes?
Of being organized out of the picture?

Maybe you need an AA meeting

Alienated Anonymous
Is for people who think church could be great
If everybody who wanted to got to talk
And not just sit and listen
If you could sing a four part hymn
And not be drummed into oblivion
By amplified choruses

I won’t go deaf listening to amplified choruses in the Episcopal Church, but I am often organized out the picture, and I wish I had a dollar for every Bush bashing joke I’ve heard. For people who trumpet their tolerance, Episcopalians are also noticeably intolerant of Evangelicals. My dilemma has not changed much. Mainline churches tend to follow postmodernism in ethics while conservative churches follow the pop-culture equivalent in their styles of worship. Even the Catholic Church sings mostly a musical derivative of the 1960s era of our enlightenment.
There is some consolation in knowing that Jesus was a misfit among the religious majorities of his time. Maybe he didn’t sing. Sometimes I think I’ll continue to sing only in the shower.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Hearing is Believing

Here's an interesting article by Photius Kontoglou (Greek Orthodox) about sacred and profane music.

An Old Song

Sometimes it's hard to know whether one is reacting to Christian music out of sentiment or if a hymn or song has truly opened up the gates of heaven, if only for a moment. But when that moment happens, then you realize what a conduit of faith and spiritual sight that music can provide when it's done with faith and not for entertainment.

About 20 years ago, a friend and I went to a cozy, little German restaurant on western Christmas Eve located in a mostly vacant downtown area in a small Southern Illinois city. The restaurant was beautifully decorated and it was filled with mostly older customers, each table happily chatting away and feasting. My friend and I were also having a good time, and aside from the Christmas decorations, this could have been any other convivial meal at any other time of year.

The door opened and a young man and two young women entered. I recognized the young man whose name was Jerry; he ran a soup-kitchen and clothes shop for the poor from a store-front church. Jerry and his two companions were out carrolling on the city streets on this cold night and now entered this establishment to sing for us.

He pulled off his cap and began beating time with it in his hand. The trio began with "Silent Night" singing a very common rendition with a slightly better than average competence. But despite its ordinariness, I began to hear something different in this singing of an too-familiar tune. So did the rest of the customers, who immediately feel silent, suddenly suspended in their merry-making before the trio proceeded more than three notes.

By the time they came to the second stanza "Shepherds quake/at the sight. Radiant beams from heaven above..." the words suddenly struck me, as if I was hearing their import for the very first time. Why hadn't I heard about the magnificence of the shepherds' vision before in all the other times I had heard this song? It became apparent that Jerry and his friends believed in the words they were singing, that they were really doing this as an act of worship, not for the sport of carroling. They sang it straight, without adding any emotion to it, and just let the song and words speak for their beliefs and because of that, it was the most affecting rendition of that song I had ever heard.

The song ended, and they sang two verses of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" which served to provide a triumphant coda to the first song. Then they wished us "Merry Christmas" and disappeared into the chilly night.

No one stirred. The restaurant remained very quiet, as everyone seemed equally affected and deep in thought. I turned to my friend and saw that his eyes were full. Some minutes passed before the background noise returned to normal and life went on as before, but maybe not quite as before. But I never forgot how "Silent Night" had at last conveyed to me, or that I was at last allowed to hear in it, the essence of that extraordinary night so long ago.

Friday, December 09, 2005

The Two Minds of Christianity Today

Sometimes I wish I could go back in time for about a week to visit Europe when the Christian culture was at its height, just to see how virile Christianity had been in the arts, culture and ordinary living, what a wholistic life as a Christian really had been. In our times, it seems that to be a Christian or even any seriously religious person is something that modern cultures will not accommodate, relegating as it does religion to the realm of spiritual hobbyists or potentially unmanageable political entities. Because our culture is so secularized, I think Christians today (probably 99%) are necessarily a strange blend between secularists and Christians, and with these two minds within ourselves, I wonder how long we can continue to carry this dichotomy within while our culture lurches into an increasingly hostile, anti-Christian future.

The so-called Dark and Middle Ages were a culturally fertile time for Christianity, but the pagan forces it gradually supplanted never really went away. It lived on in pagan folk practices (which lasted well into the 19th century), alchemy, witchcraft, and later in the resurgence of the ancient Greek pagan philosophies. The French Revolution heralded in the first secularizing mass movements as well as the beginnings of both fascism and communism, forces that are as strong today as ever. Even the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini have simply transplanted themselves around the world, morphing into whatever shape it needs to in order to regain ascendancy. Worse yet, the forces of fascism and communism seems to be re-merging in ways, subtle and overt, far more successfully than during the very brief pact between Hitler and Stalin in 1939-40. It only points up what author Eric Hoffer said decades in his book "The True Believer" that fascists and communists are merely two sides of the same coin.

Since the French Revolution of 1789, utopian movements have been the greatest threat to Christianity and civilization generally. It is the chief trial of our times, and a war of belief, ideas and flesh and blood that will have to be fought over again and again.

Some interesting articles along this line:
The multiculturalism agenda hits Russia. A call to ban Christian symbols in Russia. As if they need this after 80 years of Communism which largely destroyed Christianity in Russia (compared to what its culture had been before the Revolution).

Two interesting articles from the traditionalist Orthodox point of view on trends in our culture.
Orthodox view of globalization, the West, and extremism

Orthodox view of true culture and civilization

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Service vs Worship or Worship and Service

From John 12:1-8

Then Jesus six days before the passover came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, which had been dead, whom he raised from the dead.

2There they made him a supper; and Martha served: but Lazarus was one of them that sat at the table with him.

3Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment.

4Then saith one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, which should betray him,

5Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor?

6This he said, not that he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein.

7Then said Jesus, Let her alone: against the day of my burying hath she kept this.

8For the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always.


Today, in the Western Churches, a great deal of focus is given and much effort drafted into solving pressing social issues, such as poverty and injustice. Much of this change of focus of the Church to solving social issues through service has been in the last 40 years since Vatican II. However, the idea of service is not new to the Church (east or west). Centuries ago the Church, through its parishes and monasteries, had set up the first hospitals and lazariums (leper asylums), and provided many ministries to the poor and refuge to travelers. But the Church of today tries to SOLVE or eliminate these problems, whereas the Church in the past had not expected to solve or eliminate them, rather to minister to alleviate the suffering. The Church’s original focus and through the centuries had been first and foremost to worship the true God. Once true worship was established, the effects of grace would then spread throughout the culture, which in itself, could solve, eliminate or prevent many social problems. The ministry through true worship is a longer and harder path and one that requires more faith. But the temptation has always been to take short-cuts.

That the Church had changed its expectation from ministering to solving the world’s problems showed a decided accommodation to the utopianism of our age. There are historical reasons why this shift of expectation has happened. 18th and 19th century Europe experienced many revolutionary and social worker movements which saw the Church (wedded as it had been to the feudal state) as a hindrance to their economical and political freedoms. The French Revolution purged the Church from public life, beginning the spread of aggressive secularization in Europe (and throughout the world) that continues to the present day. By the late 19th century, the popes issued encyclicals that addressed the issues of social inequality, until finally the Roman church “modernized” itself at Vatican II (1965) and set itself the task of solving the social issues of the day in order to inject a Christian influence upon an already ongoing political process. This modernization immediately affected worship practices by detaching the liturgy from its traditional practices towards free-form worship. Contemplative monks and nuns were forced out of the monasteries and convents to perform social work instead of dedicating their lives to prayer, as a life of prayer was seen as useless. In Latin America, this utopian shift towards solving the social problems soon morphed into the Liberation Theology movement, which was often found making common cause with the Communists as gun-toting priests joined their ranks.

The Protestants, generally, also followed the Roman church’s lead into social issues ministries, where now, a congregation is often encouraged to prove its Christian ardor by enrolling in Habitat for the Humanity, soup kitchens, marching against war, or any other ministry that seeks to solve someone problem. Protestant churches was already disadvantaged with very thin worship traditions or devotional practices, but this modern essentially secular drive towards Christian service became in the minds of many as good as, if not better than, mere worship. I remember a Presbyterian pastor tell the story of a missionary/doctor friend of his who worked extremely hard in South Asia ministering to the poor there. This doctor, who had no opportunity for worship, exhausted herself because she kept trying to solve problems which were unsolvable and often very horrific. After five years, she completely lost her faith in God, thinking that this ultimate Problem-Solver didn’t care about poor people as much as she did.

So what is one to make of the verse where Jesus rebukes Judas by saying “The poor you will have with you always, but me you have not always?” (John 12:8). The author of this gospel says that Judas was covering his innate greediness by objecting to the “waste” the woman demonstrated by pouring expensive oil on Jesus’ feet. Judas based his objection on a practical suggestion: “this money could have been used for the poor.”

Was Jesus rebuking Judas only for his greed or perhaps something more? Given our modern practical mindset today, if we were direct observers of this scene, we probably would have been tempted to applaud Judas, thinking he had only suggested something hugely practical to removing the curse of poverty. We would have rejected the silly woman was being impractically mystical, though she was the only one in the crowd who intuitively knew that awe-filled sacrifice that would be required of Jesus.

But Jesus said: “The poor you will have with you always, but me you have not always.” Jesus didn’t rebuke the woman for her worshipful impracticality, but rebuked instead Judas for his mere practicality. It was the woman’s mystical response that was the real solution of the poor state of things, if one looks at this suffering world from a cosmological viewpoint (God is among us, let us bow down) instead of a worldly one (Problem A must be solved or God’s Kingdom won’t come.)

Jesus himself saw worship as the font of everything he did, and he did not reduce worship to the same level as service. Service is not worship, but worship’s outgrowth. Worship must precede service in order for service to do real good and not serve ego or ultimately, the devil. Jesus began his ministry after a sojourn in the desert where he was tempted by the devil to change stones into bread (which could feed the world.) Satan offered him the rulership of all the kingdoms on earth (think what good that Jesus can do with all that power) in exchange for diverting his worship from God to Satan.

Every morning, Mother Theresa began her service to the poorest of the poor with hours of prayer and worship and instructed her helpers to do the same. She would not accept the dubious “help” of any who would not abide by this requirement. She said that without deep prayer and worship, one couldn’t do this work, being too awful, exhausting and unending for a human being to do. For the poor will be with us always, no matter what we do.

To deal with them and any other suffering, Christ must be with us first and we with Him before we put our finite backs to it. If our worship is cast aside or is denigrated and cheapened, if we confuse what worship really is, then our service in time may well evolve into a practical atheism that any government social worker would envy.

Our attention to worship means we have faith in God to ultimately bring us to His Kingdom. To worship God BEFORE we serve means we lay aside our temptation to bring in the Kingdom ourselves.

Monday, December 05, 2005

The Year 2K War of Attrition in Church Music

This piece was published five years ago on a forum sanctioned by Mars Hill Church, a postmod group of Christians in Seattle.

There are still occasional flare-ups in the acrimonious debate in church over music and worship styles. Mostly the factions have agreed to disagree and settled into their trenches. In a few places blended services try to sustain the clashing juxtaposition of amplified guitars and rock singers in competition with choirs singing music from the seventeenth century. Maybe it can be made palatable, but when either style runs for more than a few minutes in these services, those of another persuasion tend toward apathy or indignation. In respectable company, market dynamics have stifled debate. Ministers and church Elders have to pay the bills. If pop music is the price to be paid for the participation of generations born since the building campaigns of the fifties, so be it. Musicians with college jobs can have their fling using captive choirs that rehearse often enough to do ambitious works. When college conductors go on the speaking circuit, they know they have to make conciliatory noises respecting the “Trinity” of microphones, drum sets, and guitars. If they don’t, they will not continue to get speaking engagements.
The lamentable irony of this situation is that those of us who can remember an era when choirs in North Dakota were singing Handel and Mozart now have trouble finding a church choir in Seattle or San Francisco that can do as well. Friction has led to compromise, compromise to attrition. Those who think there is more involved in the music debate than the logic of cultural relativism have lost many battles. We’re finding it difficult even to get a hearing for our convictions. A whiskey baritone or breathy blonde crooning into a microphone before the congregation used to raise eyebrows. Now it’s an Elder who wants to hear J. S. Bach who troubles Israel. Elitism, it’s called.
I’ve argued often enough that pop music sends messages incompatible with Christian ideals. It’s evident that most of this is not taken very seriously in the American church. If present trends continue, the musical masterpieces composed under the auspices of the historical church will soon be relegated to the museum. The sentimental comfort of folk rock will replace transcendence and classical form. People who understand why it matters are getting too old and worn out to resist.
I’m not willing to learn to play the guitar, so what am I going to do? Try to be the last man standing when the barbarians completely overrun the territory? Will my cynicism trump an assault of banality and derivative pop? While the horde is stoking the fire, perhaps I’ll sing a Twelfth Century hymn. My last gasp in the flames will be to yell something incoherent about forty-year-old youth directors and how they ought to grow up. But when most of the horde is well over forty and still singing music suitable for Bible camp, my complaint is not going to be heard above the guitar amplifiers. Might as well shut up and burn. The groans of the martyrs will continue to be ignored while the church sings music that would embarrass Tiny Tim!
So why should anybody care if Mozart is banished from the sanctuary? Isn’t the gospel able to survive even the humiliation of tasteless pop art? Don’t we have to contextualize Christianity to communicate with savages? Can’t we dispense with tradition that doesn’t sell? Well, probably three out of four of these questions can be answered with a qualified yes. Yes the church will endure; it survived the Dark Ages and American Revivalism. We have to communicate, and if our traditions are retrograde, they should be jettisoned. It doesn’t follow that classical art can go. First of all, it just isn’t true that classical music doesn’t communicate cross culturally. In fact it communicates to a much wider spectrum of cultures than pop music. Pop music is by its nature trendy and contemporary (literally, of the temporary). Even in America, white middle class youth cultures and the old boomer culture are getting to be sects in the midst of waves of immigrants, urban ethnic groups, and affluent yuppies whose tastes change faster than the church can follow. Classical music is not an elitist style or genre. It is music that still works after hundreds of years. It is cross-cultural. This is the meaning of the word classical.
Why it matters if the church loses Mozart’s masses is similar to the loss the church incurs by losing its connection to history. The American religious landscape is littered with denominations of the church that once tried to start fresh by getting out of stale traditions only to end up odd subcultures of their own led by a collection of quirky preachers or an elite cadre in the college subsidized by their denomination. Generally, the transformation from fresh upstart to oddball sect takes less than a generation. Ministers who got saved worshipping with Jesus people in a park or under a freeway bridge someplace are now old and gray, but many of them are still trying to recapture the moment for people who have grandchildren and now quite different problems than they had in 1971. Folk singing accompanied by acoustic guitars may still be their stock in trade, but that doesn’t mean this music will communicate to Hispanic or Asian immigrants better than Handel or Mozart. A local fringe newspaper, The Stranger, recently featured a hilarious review of Creation 99, a Christian rock festival at the Columbia Gorge. Any illusions that the promoters had about their music’s ability to communicate with hip young moderns should be dispelled by the scorn the author heaped on it. He admitted his mind was made up even before attending this pop Christianity shop-a-thon, but his take on it is worth quoting: “Jesus rock makes about as much sense as shouting Sex-Pistols lyrics during the singing of a church hymn.”
Christian pop is really for people who grew up in the church feeling deprived of the fun everybody else seemed to be having. There is the illusion that because Jesus kept company with outcasts and sinners he wouldn’t have much taste for the refinements of high church culture. Rick Levin, the author of the scandalous article in The Stranger, evidences this prejudice. He prefers to think Jesus would spend his time among young Grunge Rockers in preference to the company of the relatively moderate attendees at the Creation 99 festival. It might be worth considering the possibility that Jesus kept the company he kept out of sympathy for the outcast’s alienation from their peers, not their radical chic. On that view it’s easier to surmise that Jesus would be more sympathetic with the folks who sing Mozart in community choirs than he would with the masses of like-minded enthusiasts at any number of pop churches. As T. S. Eliot apparently quipped: "When the world has gone mad, it’s the fellow bucking the trends who seems so."
For now I’d be satisfied if I thought many people understood that the church should not be a trend follower. Quite the contrary, the church has been a cultural force that has molded culture over many centuries in ways that have raised the status of women, made justice for the poor a social obligation, and institutionalized principles that were the currency of the Reformation such as Presbyterian governance and authority in a document rather than in men. There is even a good case that can be made that the philosophy of science could not have developed in absence of a worldview based on law as found in the Bible from the first chapter of Genesis. Now clearly the church and the rest of human culture stands to lose big if these things are undermined by culture that doesn’t recognize their importance or preserve the foundation for them. Does anybody really believe that American pop culture can sustain these things? Can you argue in good conscience that because Jesus befriended outsiders, he meant to perpetuate the values of those on the fringes of society? To institutionalize callow sentimentality in place of the noblest artistic masterpieces of Western Civilization?
The way the church has transformed Western Civilization has been through the transformation of culture. Thirty years of affluence have sent the musical culture of the church of the ages to the fringes of society. This is a disgrace to the triumphant company of saints and martyrs.
He who has ears to hear, let him hear!

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Friday, December 02, 2005

Whither Christian Culture?

Here is a link to an interesting website and blog (it contains numerous articles about and those written by the Catholic historian Christopher Dawson) Dawson wrote about Christianity and culture and some of his works sound as if they were describing our culture today, even though many were written several decades ago. He said: "A society which has lost its religion becomes sooner or later a society which has lost its culture.” http://www.geocities.com/dawsonchd/

Question: are Christians losing their culture because they are losing their religion?

Thursday, December 01, 2005

The Sara F. Wells Jones Religious Arts Society

Originally published by The Crossing at PromontoryArtists.Org: http://promontoryartists.org/crossing/SJones.htm

Sara Jones was probably the most religious person I have ever known. Born the daughter of a sharecropper, she attended Boston University in the 1920s, where she argued eschatology with learned men of an era that brooked little dissent from women, much less black women whose speech betrayed the rural South. Sara argued with the determination of a sidewalk evangelist. While serving in the navy she wouldn't hesitate when moral conduct was unacceptable. In Sara's presence, if the booze was flowing too freely and some admiral had his hands on the women, or women had been in sailors’ laps at too many places at the table, an officer's rank was no protection from an assault on his dignity. Sara's moralism was just as merciless when it applied to her own conduct. I didn't know her until her hands were so arthritic she couldn't open a pickle jar, but she felt the affliction was God's retribution on hands that had signed requisitions for bombs during the Korean War. She had three sons, two of them noteworthy, but the third I didn't even know existed until her funeral. Apparently he was illegitimate, and the shame followed her even in old age.

At times it seemed Sara belonged in the asylum to which her husband had once gotten her committed, but she had held many responsible jobs. After her stint in the Navy, for several years she managed a large apartment complex in Chicago. She had government jobs and worked at the IRS. She could tell hair-raising tales of guilt money at the IRS. She said thousands of dollars comes in every year, cash in envelopes without return addresses, that people send under no duress from the agency but to appease their consciences, most of which goes into the briefcases of executives. Sara had also worked in hospitals and was so repelled by doctors and hospitals that she only went involuntarily even when she broke a bone that had to be set. When the fracture had healed, she never did go back to let them remove a steel pin that was supposed to come out. When anybody tried to reason with her, she would tell the story about a conversation she overheard among doctors. "Put the patient in misery," she claimed they said, "And the family will mortgage everything and draw out every dollar to pay for treatment." She also described the way they put one patient in such misery... .

If the story about mercenary doctors didn’t suffice to keep people from taking her to the hospital, Sara would claim to be a Christian Scientist. It wouldn't surprise me if she were that too. She knew prominent ministers and rabbis all over town and had outlived some of the best of them. Besides the church paraphernalia around her apartment, she had Torah tablets on the doorpost. She had been made a member, honorary perhaps, of Temple de Hirsch Sinai, and she never desisted in lambasting a Rabbi there for permitting rock and roll music on the premises during a wedding that she had attended. If Sara had regularly gone to any of the churches on her circuit, it might have softened her prophetic assault on everything dubious or modern. As it was, she had an arcane Biblical mandate to challenge everybody in her path.

I got acquainted with Sara more than twenty years ago through an organization she founded for the promotion and exchange of religious art among churches and synagogues. Early in its existence the organization was funded in part by the Seattle Arts Commission. Sara knew a succession of mayors, one of whom helped her grant application through the process. Sara probably scared the commissioners into support with more of her stories. Now support for a church related organization would be unthinkable. The Religious Arts Society had an annual concert at St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral or First Baptist. It was an exercise in incongruity combining selections from Handel's Messiah or the Brahms Requiem juxtaposed with black spirituals, an Irish tenor known for his renditions of The Star Spangled Banner at baseball games singing Malotte's Lord's Prayer, readings from the Bible or dramatic bathrobe enactments of King David's psalms, children pounding on instruments, and here and there a guitar picker or folk singer. The only guitar player and singer ensemble that lasted more than a couple of seasons was a rabbi-and-daughter combo which reprised nearly every year until the girl went to college.

This organization made me aware of the distinction between Black spirituals and Gospel music. Choirs that sing spirituals are dangerously near extinction. To my everlasting joy I was privileged to hear and occasionally sing with a group from an Adventist church that I met through the Religious Arts Society. They were known as Les Chanticleer. Mildred Tuggle, the director, had scrounged the back shelves of music stores all over the country, finding repertoire for her choir without any research grants and getting little recognition for what she was preserving. The group used to tour extensively, singing at NAACP conferences and such things in addition to church meetings. They sang standards of the genre such as Oh Mary Don't You Weep, City Called Heaven, or My Lord Delivered Daniel along with lesser-known works by Bond, Burleigh or Boatner. This choir was the genuine article. The tenors and basses could really sing in counterpoint to rich altos and sopranos. Their songs made the rafters ring. Since then the choir has had trouble getting engagements and keeping people interested, but their credits were so extensive at one time that they got onto the rosters of booking agencies in the Northwest. When The Andy Williams Show was resorting to Christmas specials in places like Seattle's old Paramount Theater, Les Chantecleer were hired as a backup chorus for Andy's holiday nostalgia fest, probably without full appreciation of the racial and musical constituency of the group. But, Mildred had a contract and the funds to supplement her ranks with whomever could be found to quickly learn Winter Wonderland and Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire. I got into the act on a rare snowy evening for Andy's tap dancing and the chorus’s backup of wah wahs. I can testify that the spontaneous singing up in the prep room, by a choir in high gear warming up on standards of their own repertoire, was worth much more than the price of admission downstairs. Some of the choir members were shocked at the band leaders tipsy jesting, and Sara Jones, who of course hadn't missed this occasion, let me hear about it all the way home.

Sara, as one might expect, detested pop music and jazz. Her celebrity son in Hollywood was playing the devil's music as far as she was concerned, a sentiment in which many of us in the Religious Arts Society were inclined to concur. No doubt, it was partly her son's prestige that got people to take Sara seriously when she called them about participating in her events. She always invited him and he would send flowers with a note conveying his regrets. When the master of ceremonies would read the card, Sara's reply would be squinty eyed and feisty from under the brim of her bonnet. "They send flowers to dead people," she would retort, or some such thing. She loved her son and prayed for him. She defended him; Solomon had had more wives. But she wasn't interested in using his success to promote art in a contrary tradition. One summer at St. Mark's Cathedral, television cameras showed up in the parking lot before the annual concert. Sara sent them packing back to their studios in the news-team vans in which they had arrived. Nobody was going to turn these sacred festivities and potluck luncheon into a media circus.

Sara attracted attention even while shunning the media. She wrote letters to governors, senators, and mayors. Every new mayor got a Bible in the mail from her, and she expected him to read it. When a lesbian was elected to the city council, Sara wrote Sam Smith, council member and long-time moderator, recommending that the Bureau of Vital Statistics be closed. That was before lesbians had children. Sara was anti war. Heaven help us had she been an animal rights activist! To my knowledge her only foray into Noah’s territory was a letter she wrote to executives of a food conglomerate objecting to overcrowding chickens and forcing them to lay jumbo eggs! Sara's letters were always immaculately typed and hilarious. Into her ninties a sense of humor never left her. She knew what she was doing and might have observed that Jesus was always able to draw a crowd. He put on some dandy potluck luncheons from a few loaves and fishes, but it probably wasn't the food that kept people interested. May it be suggested that the artistry of his discourses had something to do with it?

The Religious Arts Society exhibited artistry from churches in many traditions. It was nothing short of amazing to me when idioms that seemed exhausted of any innovation that could restore their original power suddenly moved the earth beneath me and communicated a humanity more profound than anything contrived by cinematic effects or that of many classical masterpieces. Some of the dreadful music and artistic traditions of the church have become travesties in which it is nearly impossible to recognize the meaning they must have once been able to convey, but a skillful practitioner can still use them in a metaphor that makes even the most cynical modern secularist let down his guard. Finding instances of such artistry is a haphazard affair. One is often in for something akin to culture shock, but having once survived the period of adjustment, the trip to a church where the tambourines are shaking or, for that matter, to hear the choir at a Presbyterian Church just down the street is often a great deal more than could have been imagined or hoped. It would seem that exchanges of the sort provided by the Religious Arts Society could go a great distance toward unity in spirit, if not in polity, among various denominations of the church. The church universal contains a great deal more diversity than most of the organizations making noises about diversity. If this abundance were more visible, it could do Christians a world of good. The process may lead to a winnowing out of some of the charlatans in our midst, which would also be to the good. Finally, the metaphors used to communicate Christian doctrines would have to be improved if they are to get a hearing outside the walls of our meeting places. There might be less preaching exclusively to the choir, if the choir were singing in public more often.

What of the metaphors themselves? Are the cultural artifacts that turn up in churches powerful enough to be mainstreamed or integrated in any way into society? A moment's reflection on this rhetorical question leads to the obvious conclusion that they are already part of our cultural landscape. We need to start thinking more like artists to become aware of them and use them as we have begun to use abstract legal and political discourse and as the church historically has used philosophy. A little more reflection leads to the conclusion that rational people think in images more fluently than they do in abstract deductive arguments. If we want to be able to effectively contest our issues in public, we are going to have to grapple with the monsters already engaged there, many of them brought to life by Christians who have preceded us.
It is probably a good thing that Sara was unwilling to let TV cameras into the cathedral. Before we try to harmonize our voices in a public Fourth-of-July celebration or Christmas Oratorio, the church could use more rehearsals of the sort provided by the Religious Arts Society. There is nothing quite like the refreshing new perspective that is obtained by getting what we do every Sunday out of its habitual milieu and before people who may be familiar with the text we sing but perplexed by its musical setting. Refreshing is perhaps a euphemism for having cold water thrown on you. It's the effect one can imagine if instead of religious television enthusiasts a bunch of Episcopalians became the captive audience in a television church, or the obverse situation of an audience that thrives on religious television at St. Marks Cathedral. The result would probably be unpleasant, but on a more manageable scale, if the exercise could be sustained, it might have the beneficial effect of winnowing out, not only the charlatans, but some of the excesses. It is a fact that Episcopalians can enjoy Gospel music without the big-hair accoutrements. Musicians from many black churches appreciate Handel or Brahms. Texans contribute a great deal of money to the New York Metropolitan Opera, though they are only a radio audience for the Met's broadcasts.

Despite the obstacles, the goal would be to someday have that Fourth-of-July celebration in a public park with a multi-denominational choir singing good settings of The Star Spangled Banner and the Battle Hymn of the Republic, and once a crowd has gathered, for the people willing to listen, music representing the best of our church traditions. It could be one swell picnic! Much better than little enclaves of oddly ornamented church groups scattered around the park on a summer holiday, better than the ecumenists dialoging in academic settings or plotting a re-imaging of Biblical theology. The best thing about it would be that religious affiliation becomes indistinguishable while people are waiting for the hamburgers to come off the grill, or, among Adventists, waiting for a slice of cherry pie. Lots of onlookers might start to remember when all this was legal and help us send the ACLU packing with the dispatch Sara used on the TV crew.

That under our belt, Christians in many communities might be able to marshal the musical and financial resources to scare the hell out of everybody with a Verdi Requiem. Imagine massed choirs at the city arena on Good Friday. It would have a somewhat different impact on the community than a Billy Graham crusade. The Verdi Requiem was written for the theater, not under the auspices of the church, but it grabbed the churches' most demonstrably effective images to eulogize the passing of Verdi's idol Alessandro Manzoni. I don't think anybody is going to complain if we borrow our material back. Performing it in public is still perfectly legal.

Musical/dramatic metaphors from church traditions may be difficult to bring off in public, but there are many areas that verge on conventional morality that are not incorporated into music done in church services. Love songs clearly have something to do with family values. They are the stock in trade of a recording industry that could be accused of contributing to the delinquency of minors and abetting juvenile behavior among thirty somethings, forty-and-fifty-somethings who should know better, and even senior citizens. Are the religious music moguls turning out anything that can compete with this and start turning back the tide of immorality washing up on our doorsteps? If they would, maybe they could employ their poet bards in process of regeneration someplace more suitable to their craft than in church, and we wouldn't have to listen to oozy love songs to God on Sunday morning.

Political conventions in American politics have been compared to camp meetings of the revival eras in our history. It is somehow fitting that religious conferences are becoming major events for political organizing. These metaphors are interesting, but the archetypes and the metaphors sometimes fail to communicate, yet people, at least in Western cultures, continue to be indoctrinated and make decisions based on them. Time was when a lot of Americans breathed a sentimental consent hearing: I'm satisfied with just a cottage below/ a little silver and a little gold/ but in that city where the ransomed will shine/ I want a gold one that's silver lined. Now a lot of those folks are putting their money in gold to stave off the ravages of inflation and hide their financial affairs from the government. Apparently the old metaphor isn't working anymore and we're going to have to find more compelling motivation for cheerful persistence in the often-unrewarding responsibilities of everyday life. Is there sufficient spiritual energy to sustain us in the hymn that goes: Living for Jesus a life that is true/ seeking his blessing on all that I do? A prudent and reasonable answer, I think, is it all depends.

Whether the lines of the old songs ring true depends on the depth of character of the singer. When the character of the singer is compromised, somewhat shallow, unschooled in the larger theological framework from which the meager poetry gets its punch, as is most frequently the case, it depends on technique. This is where it gets difficult. A good person, exceptionally persistent in adversity, who has shown strength overcoming hardship, or who is faithful in spite of human failings, can sing the simplest lyric without embarrassing everybody. If they can carry a tune, it just might suffice. People who haven't seen anything admirable in so long they're numb may be convicted and the secrets of their hearts laid bare. In just about every other case I know of, more is going to be necessary than meager art. In the absence of exceptional humanity, we're going to have to rely on technique. Occasionally you find great art in combination with profound humanity and great artistry, and the earth moves. In most cases, in the presence of lesser mortals, that is to say people who have not suffered the kinds of things that require such strength of character, we need better art and artistry.

Who knows what Mozart was really like. Was he Don Giovanni? Given his position of privilege from a youthful precocity it seems more likely that he was the seducer than that he was the feckless, though virtuous, Ottavio. But, his music knows nobility even if he was not himself noble. Maybe he could only imagine things as they should be. The Marriage of Figaro is effective on so many levels that we marvel at its capacity to make us perceive and feel so many important things. Virtuosity without virtue? Possibly. But again, nobility is rare, maybe only an ideal in times like these. We need artists who can show us the ideal, whether or not they can embody it.

Artistry in the church on the threshold of the twenty-first century should be the finest we can muster. Music in church services should be the best music available played or sung by musicians with good technique, because finding musicians who are good enough people to inspire us without technique is an undependable prospect. This doesn't mean we showcase deadbeats. It is simply a matter of auditioning singers and selecting music that has proven its dependability rather than relying on good intentions. Then the larger quest becomes that of finding music that can be depended on to elicit the hidden things. We need to bring the metaphorical monsters out of hiding and slay them. Church may not be the best place to do some of the music that is most able to accomplish this. Then we have to be careful not to defeat our purposes through abstraction. Confinement to the church building and services may unnecessarily eliminate some of the best music. Explaining everything in it can be as deadly to the performing arts as it is to the reading of the Bible. Imagine a performance of The Magic Flute preceded by a long dissertation on music theory.

If we are going to try to do something that doesn't quite belong in church but brings to life subliminal ideas for those schooled in Western culture, probably we won't want to start with something that confuses Christians and completely mystifies secularists. The Wolf-Ferrari oratorio, La Vita Nuova, conflates images of Dante's idealized love for Beatrice with ideals Catholics venerate in the Virgin Mary. This is going to be a risky proposition, not to mention musically difficult, requiring as it does orchestra, exceptional baritone and soprano, and children’s chorus in addition to regular chorus. If these resources were available, it would be safer to do the Brahms Requiem and find something suitable for the children. Opera companies deal with issues of marketability and comprehension for somewhat different reasons. They think they have to produce crankish modern works. Sometimes they give us something good, but even then, Seattle Opera's War and Peace had to wait until people were satisfied that the company could do Rigoletto, Tosca, The Marriage of Figaro, etc. If, after a couple of seasons of music that builds confidence among our combined churches' ensemble and trust in the audience, everybody is looking for something adventurous, the Wolf-Ferrari may be just what we need.
Let's look at the problem on a smaller scale. We have a church choir that manages to provide serviceable high church anthems at least a couple of times per month. The choir members are busy, but come to rehearsals fairly regularly. They have sung in school ensembles or played in the band, so enough of them can read music to keep things going. Maybe there are a couple of solo quality voices, or the church budget can manage to pay section leaders and occasionally a few string players. Probably, somebody knows of other choirs in much the same condition at other churches, and somebody probably knows of a community chorus that is also trying to stay afloat in the sea of administrative overhead and costs with which most arts organizations contend. There are really a lot of possibilities here. The community chorus may be delighted to join forces with church groups and have several expansive halls in which to perform. But wait a minute. What about the guitar players in our churches? And all the folks who want to sing folk choruses?

Before we can sing music that works in the community at large even when the singers are not spiritual giants, we have to deal with middle class music. Lots of people prefer callow choruses. We can't just send the guitar players to a church camp someplace where summer never ends. Churches with a sizable constituency of folk singers at odds with traditionalists often fail to resolve the problems this situation raises. Some find themselves dealing with emotions of an intensity the church hasn't seen since the wars of the Reformation era. And this adds to our public credibility problem. In the same way as secularists dismiss Christian theology and its cultural legacy because of the Reformation wars, our neighbors are repelled by the feuding factions of local churches. It used to be said that music is a universal language. In the church it has become an almost universally contested language.

Music from the period of Western standard practice with its roots in the classic period is better than the departures represented by Wagner and Schoenberg, and it is better than pop music. I'm not going justify this dogma here, but I'll persist in it with tenacity exceeding that of Sara Jones in her convictions. If the church is going to speak with any moral authority in the world, it is going to have to celebrate its truths with music that is up to the task. God chose to become incarnate in a human being, not a frog or even the most adorable puppy. To sing of the incarnate Word, we should find the highest forms of music available and learn the idioms of this music just as our seminarians need to learn the Hebrew and Greek idioms of the Bible. There are circumstances where the best that can be found is not up to the standard of that available to educated Americans, but that doesn't change the situation in affluent American churches. Having said that, I am willing to concede that we are not going to solve our practical problem on the basis of which music is better or even more suitable for our purposes.

I think the problem is one of alienation, not one of musical form. Lots of guitar players have classical music in their record collections and most choir singers have been to summer camp for singing around the fire to the strumming of guitars. But once somebody has connected with a community of one cultural disposition, it is hard for them to imagine giving it up. In a manner similar to conversion to Christianity in a Muslim society, conversion to classical music alienates people from much of the old culture and more importantly from people who still value the old forms. Still, in absence of coercion, it is often possible to find areas of convergence between cultures. All people are made in the image of God. We might expect large areas that can be shared by Muslims and Christians. In the same way there are probably areas that can be appreciated by both classicists and infidels.

What seems to have happened in the area of church music is that, in the larger culture within which American churches exist, popular music idioms shared by baby boomers and succeeding generations of pagan savages are tending to overwhelm civilization and decency. When church services sound like a pale imitation of incantations at the coliseum, it is not surprising that thirty-somethings don't feel much loyalty to Christian incantations. It's just another ritual and not a very good one at that, because, most places, the show isn't as entertaining as the circuses at the coliseum. An hour listening to National Public Radio's program, The World, is enough to verify that boomer music is invading even the territories of Indonesian cults. You hear throat singers from Borneo backed up by what sounds like Barry Manilow's band.

Maybe in some backhanded way this should give us hope. If Indonesian throat singers prefer tonal scales and harmonic progression once they've heard it, there may be grist for the mill that drives musical standards at conservatories and academic discussions of music in general. We can at least eliminate the nihilism of most twentieth century music. But how are we going to get the guitar pickers to repent?

It seems the only hope is something like Sara's Religious Arts Society. A good jolt of real diversity and the ensuing culture shock could unsettle everybody enough to talk to one another. When we start searching for something we can do together, we might find that music that can be written down in standard notation is necessary. From there it isn't too far to polyphony and more ambitious programming. In the mean time, we can enjoy the differences, because there is some real poetry to be found in our midst. If nothing else we can get acquainted again. The church really does need all of its members. Some of the humblest types find ways to restore the meaning and dignity of old forms. Even some old classicists can be revived.

Monday, November 28, 2005

The Jason Silver Dialogues

After everything I've said to provoke contemporary Christian musicians, Jason Silver is still willing to talk to me. Thanks for reading, Jason. I've been trying to track you down on your various blogs and media sites. The conversation just got more interesting, in fact it just became a diversified conversation. The rest of us are liturgical musicians who cherish historic music. A contemporary church musician who is willing to engage our determined traditionalism has to be an exceptional human being. Instead of trying to catch the discussion in comments scattered around the tailings of previous posts, let's organize it here.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Extra-liturgical Music

Community outreach by the church can be sustained through concert programs that complement a high level of commitment to music as part of worship. The church invests talent and substantial capital in music to support the dignity of its liturgy. Choir and organ still fill many historic sanctuaries with hymns and anthems that resurrect the music of composers the church has patronized over the centuries. This enduring cultural legacy needs little commentary. It speaks more eloquently than anything currently attracting attention in various denominations of the church and, significantly, in modern concert halls and theaters. While most churches are driven to pop music by market forces, and serious contemporary music is as dissonant as can be imagined, the music of Western standard practice speaks volumes by its enduring elegance, and there are important correlations between the music of the church and music in general. What we know as the classical tradition began in monasteries. This essay explores reasons for expanding church music programs to include non-liturgical concert music. It will also digress into some of the intellectual issues that frame great art music and why discussion of the historical and philosophical environment in which this music was created and performed can be useful in public relations for the church.

St. Bartholomew parish in New York claims that music has been the most effective method of public relations in the successful effort to bring St. Bart's back from near extinction. This New York parish sustains traditional music in worship and also manages to accommodate a few other styles. They have extra-liturgical concert programs that engage people from the community, some of whom come back to church through these contacts with the church and its people. In the greater Seattle area there are notable music programs in churches, such as St. James Cathedral, University Congregational Church, University Presbyterian Church, Bellevue First Presbyterian, and University Christian Church. All of these have high standards for music in both liturgy and in concert venues. University Christian Church employs the founder of Seattle Chamber Singers and Orchestra Seattle, as music director. Because extra-liturgical music offers cultural enrichment, it has generally been supported by Christians. Presenting historic masterpieces in churches steeped in the same civilized traditions that sustain classical music has been one of the gifts the church gives to the surrounding community. This used to be uncontroversial. Like most everything else, classical music is no longer uncontroversial. Mega-churches obliterate tradition with pop music. Feminists rage against Beethoven, claiming that listening to his music is like being abused by a man. Critics, like Theodore Adorno, argue that the Western musical canon perpetuates class oppression. This contempt for good music is being taken seriously, it seems.

About a year ago during a question-and-answer session of a speech by a visitor to our parish from New York, rector-emeritus what’s his name? …I asked how he thought the church should communicate in an era that has relegated Christianity to the sidelines. As I recall, he punted the question in good humor, saying something like, “Yeah, I’ve wondered… . Next question!” How the church can do public relations in the current environment is a question that, no doubt, many are pondering along with our friend from New York. The Decade of Evangelism for the Episcopal Church came with a flourish and went out as a non-starter at the end of the twentieth century. Nobody expects too much from Episcopalians with regard to evangelism. Evangelicals embarrass everybody by their excesses, but they continue to grow while old-line Protestant churches dwindle. Everybody is worried about the excesses, but the disturbing absence of churches that have not abandoned all decorum seems like it could be an opportunity. Why not brand a church as an institution that has grace, depth of spiritual community, and sensitivity in matters of liturgy and the arts? Some churches still maintain an ethos that succeeds in all of these areas. Promoting extra-liturgical events seems a good way for the church to grow as people in the larger community get acquainted with church members and experience the grace, depth of spiritual community, and dignity in worship that can be found. Musical events seem a natural outgrowth of everything else.

Extra-liturgical music as a part of community outreach can be delineated by controversies about music in evidence in the church. The pop music phenomenon accentuates departure from tradition. Its advocates claim that choruses or even edgy rock music, in worship and in outreach, are the best way to communicate in the postmodern era. On the other extreme, old-line Protestant denominations that support classical concerts often appreciate the music as an aesthetic artifact, a museum piece. A few places try to champion serious contemporary music, but the avante garde is mainly academic. St. Bart's New York promotes chamber music from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with remarkable success. The music is has enduring nobility. Something about it is generaaly recognized as more than nostalgia, so people tend not to question its value. Vocal music is a little riskier and can be more controversial than instrumental music. The sentiments that turn up in art song recitals are sometimes maudlin. Opera selections dramatize themes from great literature, and as in academe, literature is a battleground of ideologies. Modern stagings of well known operas often turn Christian virtues on their head. Monumental Euro-trash productions have become so commonplace that nobody is surprised anymore when Wotan comes on stage wearing a pink tutu. Should the church invest time and money keeping historic music in the repertoire for the community at large or leave niche markets to subsist in academe and among the elites who appreciate such things? To argue for church involvement in great music, another question might be posed: why does historic "classical" music retain its artistic potency after many centuries while serious contemporary works seldom last beyond their premiers? New music disintegrates, as fast as it is written, to be superseded by another genre of grunge, sentimental schlock, or the next wave of experimental dissonance. The music preserved by the Western tradition has endured through countless generations. It has been improved by recurring cycles of study and innovation based on what has been learned. Like Renaissance scholars and artists, musicians in this tradition looked back to the past for proven artistic form instead of trying to invent music ex nihilo in every era. The virtue of this process can be compared to that which produced the elegant language of the Book of Common Prayer, the received theology of the church, and the scriptures. The Bible, of course, is the result of a canonical tradition. Also interesting is how entangled the history of Western Civilization is with the church. Separation of church and state is one of the highest achievements of the West. Separation of cult and culture is impossible.

That religion and culture engage peoples' most basic assumptions and core beliefs explains some of the clashes that can surface with new opera productions in European cities that have patronized opera for centuries. As was apparent during the attempted drafting of a constitution for the European Union, many citizens of Europe no longer wish to retain any legacy of their Christian past. Few people anywhere can attend a performance of the opera Faust by Charles Gounod without being struck by the antique cosmology on which Faust's contract with the devil and Margarita's apotheosis are premised. This opera made Charles Gounod the most famous musician in Paris in the year 1859. Remarkably, this is the same year as the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species, which is now dogma, of sorts, in the materialistic cosmology of the modern era. Music has many such ironies and interesting juxtapositions. As is well known, the church has, at times, been on the wrong side of historic conflicts. The Grand Inquisitor of Verdi's opera Don Carlo is malignant religion personified. The plot of Don Carlo hinges on ferment in the Protestant Netherlands against oppression by a Spanish monarchy backed by the church. Freedom is the theme in this drama and church and state are united against it. Verdi's treatment of a play by Frederick Schiller is in accord with Schiller's conception of tragic art. It is an idealism that asserts freedom of the will against historical events and even death. Schiller’s philosophical piece, On the Sublime, contains his conception of freedom attained in a kind of rational transcendence against the injustices of human history and random forces of nature. The poet's aim is poetic truth that will inspire intellectual freedom in which patriots risk their lives in the fight for actual freedom.

From all this it is clear that music can have meaning. It can recapitulate events from the past and dramatize ideals that galvanized people in times of historic change. Mozart's Marriage of Figaro was an eloquent tract against the aristocracy of his time. Note the date of its composition, 1786, between the American and French revolutions, the same era as Schiller’s Don Carlo. Beethoven's Fidelio was first performed in 1805 while French troops were marching into and occupying Vienna. The premier was postponed a month while the producers tried to convince police censors that the script was not politically inflammatory. Of course the script was politically inflammatory. It can not help but inspire resistance against injustice, then and now. Because the heyday of operatic drama predates the modern attempt to demythologize culture, it is infused with religious images. Verdi didn't go to church for much of his adult lifetime—he was anticlerical—but it would be difficult to count the operatic arias he composed in which the singer is addressing God; the songs are, in fact, prayers. Wagner's operas contain both Christian and Teutonic legend. Lohengrin is a marvelous portrait of romantic chivalry. Its protagonist is a knight of the Holy Grail, which in the ethos of medieval chivalry is the sacred chalice Jesus shared with his disciples at the institution of the Eucharist. The conflict in the opera is clearly the moral kind. Frederic of Telramund and Ortrud, his sorceress wife, accuse Elsa of fratricide and trysting with an illicit lover. Their intent is to usurp headship of the Duchy of Brabant, which belongs to Elsa's brother, Gottfried, heir to Brabant's Christian dynasty. Gottfried is now strangely absent and presumed dead. Ortrud has progressively corrupted her husband by her lie that Elsa has murdered him. You couldn’t find a clearer case of false witness in the book of Leviticus. But an essay in the subscribers' booklet that circulated prior to Seattle Opera's 2004 production of Lohengrin, by an unnamed author, calls Ortrud a "rationalist". The writer asks, under the heading Wagner's Moral Complexities, "How do we know Ortrud is so wicked? If her tactics seem ruthless, remember that she truly believes the throne is rightfully hers, that it was usurped from her family by Elsa's.” This analysis is turning somersaults to evade a salient theme of medieval chivalry. At the heart of the Grail legend and the chivalric code is the idea of might for right. If Ortrud is fighting for what she thinks is rightfully hers, she has no compunction about destroying the innocent in her ambition. Despite the weight of postmodern ideology, there are moral truths, and there is some help to be found in virtuous acts. Wagner was in many ways a scoundrel, but any story his hearers would accept had to respect the ideals prevalent at the time.

Like many of the highest ideals of Western culture, musical drama engages Christian theology at critical points. This is one explanation for the power and the controversy that surrounds the music in our time, when materialism and secularism are ascendant. The church can avoid controversy in art, or it can embrace it. Dealing with these issues can provide reasons for hearts and minds engaged by a concert to long to return to the drama of the Eucharist. The church might be hospitable to artists for art’s sake, but art is not neutral in the modern world. It is often propaganda for postmodern ideas that are incompatible with Christianity. Engaging these challenges takes away the dread many Christians feel that their theology can not stand up to intellectual scrutiny. A dispassionate analysis of musical dramas can illuminate many modern conflicts without the deadly earnestness of religion in public life. C. S. Lewis, medieval literary scholar and philosopher of Christianity, famously observed that the gospel is the most inspiring myth ever recorded, and it has the marvelous advantage that it happens to be true. For the church to neglect engagement with the ideals evident in the Western musical tradition is to needlessly miss profound theological insights. The resonance of music with the liturgy of the church has overtones of hope that can give others some comprehension of the story the church has to tell.

Producing creditable events based on operatic and art song literature is not difficult or expensive when there are so many singers who have spent half their lives studying music and find too few opportunities to perform. Most singers will contribute their time just to participate because they have, long ago, resigned themselves to day-jobs and they are not dependent on music for their living. Churches are often great places for concerts. A fairly regular schedule of performances of art songs and opera selections can quickly put them on the map for vocal music in a given locale. The music is viable, as evidenced by very successful, low-budget productions that subsist when not everybody wants to spend $125 for a ticket to a major company opera production, and there are too few good ones. Student productions at music schools and universities are very well attended. It’s also worth noting that most singers are locked out of opportunities at opera company by agreements, contractual and otherwise, with artist-management agencies. Numerous singers have extensive repertoires ready to perform. All these resources need only the impetus of regular performance opportunities for the musicians. Such events become enjoyable social occasions that bring people into the greater community of the church. The financial costs incurred can be offset by contributions at the door. Employer matching funds can be applied in many cases. Many are willing to put energy and funds into making this happen, because they are among those who have already spent half their lives in this artistry.

--Mike Dodaro; September 23, 2005

Monday, May 16, 2005

What Happened to the Human Image

by Karen J. Hammer

When the Bamiyam Buddhas in Afghanistan were dynamited by the Taliban a few years ago, I felt a real sense of horror and outrage about that, as did many around the world. At the time, though, a few of my Protestant acquaintances (who were non-artists) suggested that this destruction was of no spiritual consequence, as these were only pagan idols that should have been destroyed anyway. I could understand the reasons behind their simple iconoclasm—idolism is to be abhorred and avoided--but I thought at the time that the Buddha statues didn’t really represent demon idols that enslaved others with witchcraft, but that these were icons of the idea of transcendent man carved in stone. The Buddha statues depicted, for the typical Asian, the possibility of salvation by a work of contemplation to tame the passions that tear man apart. That the Taliban (just one modern incarnation of the Furies) saw fit to destroy them and ALL the other artifacts of man’s long history in Central Asia showed me that they would think nothing of purging the last potent image, that is, man himself.

The West, in the last 100 years, has practiced a more subtle kind of iconoclasm, since it had dawned on our culture (about mid-19th century) that man really isn’t the center of the universe, nor does our culture seriously believe that he can be saved. Between the world wars, the visual arts have largely deconstructed the image of man, often to express its modern pessimism, to make a sour political point to show how inhuman we’ve become, how tragic. The trend is not without a reason. We live in a time of extreme passions, a time of breakdown and coming apart. I can understand why the German expressionists or Dadaists for instance, would find this human deconstruction fascinating; when those schools of art came into being after WWI. It was after that terrible experience there was truly no more room for humanist optimism, when hopes seemed to have died. Some have said that it have even begun much earlier than that, when the Grunewald cruxifixion was painted showing a decomposing Christ, a painting so out of kilter with the usual icons of the Cruxifixion, that it horrified Dostoyevsky with its despair.

But how to explain the deconstruction in our own American culture that has been spared famine and warfare on our own shores until recently? For the last 15 years or more, when I watch TV or a movie these days, I see a similar kind of iconoclasm in how the human image is depicted. Now we can see on TV 24/7 depictions of extremely graphic violence that has gradually come to include more and more dismemberings and beheadings, the ultimate human deconstruction. There are also computer-generated mutilations of faces and human forms (so-called morphing) that I see used in the commercial art, film and other media. A face or human form is now something to manipulate at will and for any purpose—a new pornography that is everywhere. I've seen some of this deconstruction spilling over into Christian art. Is the human form no longer allowed to be beautiful? Is there no hope of glory?

I hear this deconstruction and dissolution in our popular music, too. Even pop music isn’t what it was 40 years ago, when it mostly sang silly songs of puppy love—now the sounds and verses are full of pit bulls mauling human relationships. It didn’t take long for that descent into darkness to happen, just a few years passed for Sid Vicious to sing his harrowing and demonic rendition of “I Did It My Way”, and now such pop music and our other media form just about the only cultural backdrop young people know (as too many aren’t taught anything else). The frenzied agitation is piped in at you everywhere as if to say there’s no escaping it. How can one contemplate anything remotely transcendent with such pervasive cacophony, even in church, which ought to be not of this world or willingly subject to its passions and furies.

Image or Mirror?

The argument about pop culture in church is not with people who want to experience Christian truth in familiar cultural motifs. It is a defense of education in historic cultural masterpieces. Art should not be self expression such that it becomes only a mirror of its creators. The Renaissance and the Reformation both looked back in time, referring to the greatest achievements of the past in order to inform the art and culture of then contemporary creative efforts. The church looked back to the early church fathers and scriptural sources to critique the hierarchy and restore truths that their negligence had obscured. The idea that ordinary people could interpret the scriptures became a precedent for democracy as scholars discovered it in the documents of ancient Greece. Of course, not everything was worth keeping. Plato’s Republic recommends child rearing by the state.

But no single generation could have invented the ideas found in a literature of several thousand years. Renaissance art was criticized for the pagan origins of much of it, just as contemporary music is criticized now, but the church took the very best from a long tradition. There is a significant difference between adapting historic culture and importing pop music wholesale into church. Protestants remain dubious of the art of the Vatican, but the musical legacy of the Renaissance and Reformation has been generally appreciated. In the effort to communicate using familiar and appealing idioms, we’re losing music that has proven its worth.

Bach and Mozart have been communicating very well to diverse cultures over hundreds of years. Their music is still working in the Far East and in formerly Communist countries of Eastern Europe where people were deprived of this legacy for generations. Somehow we have to keep the spirit of the Renaissance alive in the midst of a culture that is largely market driven. Democracy and a postmodern culture have made it possible for anybody to claim that their perspective is as good as tradition. The tyranny of the majority is a new era of iconoclasm, and it is destroying priceless artistic values. If we’re not careful, a lot of virtues will go out with them, as well as such things as human rights and freedom, as is already evident.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

One Voice

By Karen J. Hammer

“Let’s sing the Kedrov.” whispers Joseph, our choir leader at St. Basil’s Russian Orthodox Church in St. Louis, shortly before Communion on Palm Sunday last year. “Let’s try it.” He is taking a big risk in having us, an American choir of non-singers seeking its voice (let alone a Russian Orthodox sound), sing in Church Slavonic a beloved version of “Otche Nash” (“The Lord’s Prayer”) composed by Russian √©migr√© Nikolai Kedrov, Sr. We turn to the page, and he quietly tunes us first, pointing to the sopranos, then to the altos, then the basses—“tah---tah---taaaah.” A soft, pleasant hum rises from us, a hopeful sign. He signals for our hushed attention, whispering: “Before you sing, think the note…”

We, the choir of a dozen people had already heard this restrained--“this fragile, where ‘less is more’ chant”--as Joseph termed it, but had never sung it together before, making our debut of the Kedrov piece unpredictable. Perhaps Joseph, who had volunteered his vast liturgical knowledge to improve the choir, chose this delicate adagio of prayer to test how far we’ve really come or could still go; or how it would sound in the new, expanded St. Basil’s. The Great Lent fast had cleared our voices, and we sounded tuned, so maybe he decided this was the time to expand us as well, that maybe now more from us was possible.

Not much was possible in the old St. Basil’s, a converted 1½ car rented garage that we jokingly called St. Basil’s Cathedral. For fifteen years, it had housed an altar and a congregation that had grown from six to over fifty people. Our traditionalist church lacks pews, enabling half of us to cram in like sardines, while the other half spilled out of the door to stand in all weather for the two hour service. Normally, this pewlessness was to continue the old Jewish custom of “standing before the Lord”, and is considered an uplifted, festal posture, while sitting during the long Psalm readings of vigils or Lent, signifies the weary penitential. The congregation can freely move about the nave to perform their veneration before icons, prostrations during Great Lent, and incensing of the interior. In our minuscule circumstances, though, free movement proved impossible, and exhaled breaths and burning candles depleted the air needed to sing the required liturgical responses, praises, and prayers.

The space problem prevented our choir from adding new voices, but on Pascha extra sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses joined us anyway, squeezing themselves anywhere they could. The poor acoustics and a noisy air conditioner muddled our tuning, and strong voices overpowered weak ones frustrating most attempts to sing in unison either Byzantine or Russian znammeny one-part or Russian Kievan four-part harmony. The result was cacophonous. “We’re supposed to sing with one voice.” as Maritsa, a Greek-American parishioner, once told me when comparing the virtues of Byzantine chant over western-influenced Kievan, though our forays into polyphony hadn’t really hindered our singing in unison. “The Church is ONE.” she said, pointedly. “So we really should sing as one.”

The most vulnerable of notes of our liturgical response, the very first note—“Amen”—almost always staggered in off-cue accompanied by scratchy throat clearings. Succeeding notes thudded either too sharp or flat. “Don’t sing the notes one at a time--thump-thump-thump.” Joseph said, interrupting one choppy rendition. “Sing them as phrases. The different vocal parts are all conversations with God. You don’t talk to each other in chopped-up verticals. Sing horizontally! Let it flow in a line!”

We always fumbled the melodies of the Ochtoechos rendering any unsupervised chant of troparia or kontakia as disjointed mumblings trailing off in perplexity. As the liturgy progressed, we might partially redeem ourselves (on a good day) by singing the better-known hymns marginally well, but even so, we would still lose a half note or more between the hymn’s beginning and ending. Our poor singing greatly distracted the worship that was to help the devout pray with monastic concentration of “mind and heart together.” To keep a congregation focused, the Liturgy is punctuated by the priest’s calls to attention--Wisdom! Let us attend--but our flawed performance would effectively countermand this summons. Joseph, a tenor, kept us tuned by singing with us, sometimes changing octaves to guide a wandering soprano or bass back on key, or casting a lemony look at whoever hit a sour note. When voices careened off course, he would frantically wave off the clash of notes, halting our discord. Then running his fingers through his curly red hair, he’d fix a determined but forgiving eye on us, and bravely command: “Start again…”

“It’s part of our podvig on this earth.” lamented Fr. Martin, another non-singer and our parish priest, after one memorably mangled singing of Vespers, podvig being a Russian word for a step-by-step struggle, often a suffering one. Joseph was absent that Vespers, so without his direction we bleated awfully, raising a stink rather than a “sweet odor of praise” to heaven with some of the congregation looking steamed. I glibly tried to cheer my disheartened and embarrassed fellow choristers by quoting my Pentecostal friend who flattened gospel songs with his singing: “Remember, in heaven we’ll all sing on key.” They smiled wanly, being little comforted, as good intentions alone will never substitute for a good service even though too many Orthodox choirs, perhaps reflecting Orthodoxy’s marginal existence in the West, sing so lamely that the experience of attending worship is more resignation than celebration. Though St. Basil’s failings required great forbearance from us all, still, we all came here to learn and practice true worship. But the Liturgy’s celebration of salvation deserves an offering of our best as for any other pursuit of excellence, wherein lay its challenge to us. If we never attempted to discover and give our best, much of this celebration’s intended beauty would remain untasted, and the dearth might lead us to feed on husks. So it was with a knotted brow of concern that Fr. Martin served the liturgies he loved accompanied not by angelic voices, but through the ordeal of our caterwauling. A real podvig for him, indeed.

O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness (Ps. 96:9) demarcates the sacred ground where God in His Beauty enters the human heart to be glorified there. Here, even human speech is rarefied, altering its worldly cadence to chant--let the beauty of the LORD our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it. (Ps 90.17) Our desire to worship in His beauty is an activity fundamentally different from an exercise in mere aesthetical good taste. Worship awakens the soul to God’s Beauty so that He may be mirrored there. To this end, Orthodox culture produced much of the greatest spiritual art and music in Christendom centered on a masterpiece of devotion, the Divine Liturgy.
For the Russians, the journey toward Beauty began in the 10th century, when Prince Vladimir of Kiev sent his emissaries to other lands to find a suitable religion to unify his nascent kingdom. They visited the Moslems, the Jews, and the Catholic West; and not finding satisfaction in their forms of worship, they traveled to Constantinople, the capital of Byzantium, attending the mystical Divine Liturgy in the Hagia Sophia, then the greatest basilica in Christendom. “We could not tell whether we were on earth or in heaven. For on earth there is no such splendor or beauty…” they had reported after seeing its grandeur and hearing the ethereal choirs. For Beauty’s sake, Russia entered the baptismal waters, and in turn, they would produce even more fabulous Christian art, especially excelling in music. In the opinion of visiting 19th century Western musicologists, the Russian choirs far outshone any choir in the West, being renowned for their superlative vocal orchestral sound supported by astoundingly deep basses, and their ability to hold extremely long notes. These great choirs drew their talents from a whole culture of liturgical vocal orchestras lovingly nurtured in every Russian parish before the dark years of Communist purges.

St. Basil the Great parish in St. Louis is a humble part of this heritage, belonging to a jurisdiction called the “Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia” which was sent by martyred Patriarch Tikhon to the West to preserve Russian Orthodoxy. During its eighty year diaspora, many English-speaking parishes and monasteries have sprung up, ours among them. For the benefit of our Russians, a few litanies of the Divine Liturgy are sung in the inflected beauty of Church Slavonic. Mostly we sing in the preposition and article-loaded English that make some translated Slavonic or Greek chants sound jumpy and making me wonder if English could ever qualify as a sacred language.

Even when I hear a badly sung Divine Liturgy at little St. Basil’s, I can still detect in the words how beautiful and momentous is this liturgical dialogue with God. The call O come, let us worship God our King. O come let us worship and fall down before Christ, our King and God…begins the descant of the poor, small and ordinary into the sacramental realm where simple bread and wine transform to food and medicine for the soul. In the Divine Liturgy, time ticks supernaturally, being unmeasured by the natural cycles of the sun and moon. “The Divine Liturgy occurs outside the liturgical cycles of lunar and solar time, its Eucharistic event having happened once in history--and yet it works its supernatural saving grace always.” Joseph taught us in liturgics class. It’s where chant might allow the earth-bound and care-worn singing Let us who mystically represent the Cherubim... lay aside earthly care. Here, one can expect transfigurations, even see them. Once, while watching Fr. Martin reciting liturgical prayers at the altar, I found myself listening with strangely rapt attention. In this heightened state, tiny St. Basil’s, to my eyes, mystically expanded until it seemed to be the most colossal basilica on earth.

“We simply need more space.” said Fr. Martin. Too many parishioners stood in the rain and snow, while the choir and others packed inside suffocated. The lack of space and a water heater tested new converts who endured heart-stopping immersions in the iceberged baptismal trough. Fr. Martin feared that “one day I’ll trip over a crawling child while carrying the Mysteries and spill them. It’s an accident waiting to happen.” Our Housing Committee failed to find affordable property within reasonable distance, and once our tax-exempt status made a city alderman nix our bid on a property in one depressed neighborhood as being “bad for the neighborhood”. We shook our heads. “Well, this isn’t Byzantium or old Russia where the whole village would turn out to build a cathedral.”

Our landlord offered to expand our garage/church’s nave westward by thirty feet, tripling its size, with construction starting in December, laying new sewers and water lines. Every Sunday we inspected the progress—it couldn’t go fast enough as Fr. Martin wanted it finished by Pascha in April. But plumber’s delays postponed the work schedule, and when at last his work ended, pouring a new concrete floor had to wait until warm weather. On Good Friday, plywood was laid over the roof’s truss work and new walls were raised, stabilized temporarily with two-by-fours crisscrossing the dusty, bare concrete of the new nave. The old back wall of the church still separated the old and new section. Arriving early to prepare for the Good Friday service, our reader Gennady was the first to see the shell of St. Basil’s CATHEDRAL, now no longer a joke but a hope. Tantalized by this prospect, he couldn’t wait for the work’s completion after Pascha; instead he borrowed a carpenter’s crowbar and attacked the old wall, and within an hour he swept it into a dumpster as rubble. As parishioners drifted in for the night’s service and stepped into a dimension increased seemingly a hundred-fold, a thrill ran through everyone. Our formerly toy-sized church now felt as grand as the Hagia Sophia; even though the interior was rude, unfinished, and still somewhat opened to the elements. But every new cubic inch elated. And resonated.

As usual, Joseph tuned the choir now assembled properly in vocal sections. On cue, we began, and instead of our usual stumbling that ruined a worshipful effect, the first “Amen” came out tunefully, in unison, nearly faultless. Joseph’s eyes lit up with a smile, and we glanced at each other with happy surprise. Although we didn’t perform perfectly, we could hear new possibilities in the improved acoustics. So could the congregation, swelled to a crowd of a hundred people for Holy Week, who often turned to look at us as we sang. Many joined our singing as we all stood in the dark new nave, our faces aglow by the warm light of the sweet-smelling bees’ wax candles we held, as a bit of the beauty of heaven descended with the ascension of our chant.

By October, our church expansion was completely finished. The inside was beautifully, but simply decorated, thanks to a team of visiting monks from Detroit who volunteered their talents in liturgical arts. To the delight of our Russian parishioners, the monks copied the interior of a Russian country church, laying a wooden parquet floor, painting the walls, constructing icon shelves and a more elegant iconostasis. Gilded millwork and icons of the four Gospel authors colorfully adorned the new royal doors replacing the red swinging saloon doors of the old iconostasis. A power company’s crane lifted the bearded, black-cassocked monks to the roof to cap it with two onion domes, giving St. Basil’s exterior a distinctly Orthodox appearance. “Some churches have icons that stream myrrh; some have icons or relics that work miraculous healing. I’ve always wished we could have some miracle. But maybe this is our miracle.” reckoned Fr. Martin, beaming with pleasure as he surveyed the newly transformed church.

By now, too, our choir was having its “moments” of harmony, sometimes eliciting an enraptured look from Joseph as he directed us through those moments, but he never overtly rewarded us by telling us that we sang well that day. At best, while Fr. Martin sang during the Ectenia litany the prayer “and bless those who chant”, Joseph might point at us and silently mouth those words, nodding with an affirmative smile. Fr. Martin ventured a cautious appraisal: “You have your moments, but you’re getting to have more and more of those moments.” We still went off-key, mixed up the Tones, fumbled hymn sheets, and got lost when Joseph wasn’t there, but as more voices joined us, we began to smooth out, tripping over ourselves less often. We had progressed to barely adequate, but still a very long way from sounding like the cherubim we mystically represented.

As our first Holy Week in our renovated church approached, Joseph began rehearsing us every Sunday afternoon during Great Lent to prepare us for that most important liturgy cycle. One afternoon, while rehearsing us in a Greek hymn, he commented on Orthodox music. “Compared to Russian music, it’s very hard to sing Byzantine music well. It doesn’t forgive bad singing. You must have a very well trained choir to sing Byzantine chant, and we have enough to do trying to sing the Russian. But Byzantine music, if you can do it, is wonderful. And Greek 5ths are sublime! Ah yes, the perfect 5ths!” Overcome by the thought of its beauty, he spontaneously launched into the Greek 5th tone, singing in Greek its Paschal setting-- “Death where is thy sting? Grave where is thy victory?” Maritsa, our Greek soprano, lit up with a smile at the very sound of Greek and soon added her voice, followed by Diane, our Lebanese-American alto, this being a loved and familiar melody to them. The trio sang with enthusiasm, Joseph beating time with his right hand, his eyes sparkling with whole-hearted pleasure and focused at times somewhere afar off. I could hear in their unrehearsed, untrained performance a faint, but exotic drone underscoring the music. Above that, freed by the spontaneity of its singers, descanted the joyful triumph of the melody. The otherwise modest scene grew steadily luminous, and I felt the Greek fifths, though imperfectly sung, verge on the sublime even at little St. Basil’s.

“A good singer, if he or she doesn’t pay attention to the music, can sing badly. A great voice won’t sound good at all, if it’s missing notes or losing the key. A poor singer can sing well, if he or she pays attention. That’s the main thing, paying attention. It’s what you must do to get anything out the Liturgy, or when you pray. Remember hymns are prayers, too. Ok--altogether now--from the top.” said Joseph at one rehearsal during Great Lent.

St. Basil the Great, our parish’s patron saint, had taught that “man becomes the temple of the most Holy Spirit.” Living life as a beautiful temple means removing ourselves from the world’s enmeshments of numbing distractions or soul-darkening temptations. To do this, we bring body and soul to attention, directing our whole self God-ward, which purifies us. In our homes, we mark morning and evening with prayers before our icons that window onto heavenly things. We count off on the knots of our prayer rope to fill our day and thoughts with unceasing prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner.” We prepare ourselves for Communion by attending Vigil and confessing our sins, followed by prayers and fasting until Communion. Upon crossing the threshold of the church, we cross ourselves-“We touch our heads to bless our minds; we touch our stomachs to bless our internal feelings; we touch our shoulders to bless our bodily strength” reads our children’s Sunday school lesson. By doing these things, we put off our shoes, so to speak, as Moses did when he was told he had entered a sacred place. Our finiteness must expand to temple proportions in imitation of Mary, the Theotokos, in whom the Lord of the Universe in Christ made his fleshly dwelling. “To take Communion, you must prepare. You cannot approach the Mysteries casually off the street. You must bring your whole self to it.” catechized Fr. Martin. To bring the whole self to daily prayers, to the liturgies, to the Eucharist is like learning to breathe and vocalize properly, immersing oneself in a song until it emerges clear and pure. “Praying with head and heart together is hard. So much pulls me apart. I’m afraid I’ll fail.” I once complained to him. “You won’t fail, if you keep praying. Make it a way of life. God will give you the grace and the help you need. But bring yourself to prayer so that the life of prayer will make you always present to receive His grace.” he counseled.

Let us stand well, let us stand with fear, let us attend that we may offer the holy oblation in peace, sings Fr. Martin, beginning the Anaphora litany on this Palm Sunday. The Kingdom opens with the lifting up of the Eucharistic Gifts, as bread and wine transforms into the Body and Blood of Christ, and we sing Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord of Sabaoth, glorifying it. The Liturgy invites us further in. At this point that Joseph whispers to us, “Let’s sing the Kedrov.”
And vouchsafe us, O Master, with boldness and without condemnation to dare to call upon Thee the heavenly God, as Father, and to say:
Joseph cues us for the Kedrov piece and we begin--Otche nash. Not just “Our Father” as only a salutation. Instead, Church Slavonic uses the vocative case to beseech--“O Our Father”. The adagio softly begins on E and the prayer’s seven petitions remains mostly on that humble, reverential note in a voice emanating from us as one, with no one ahead or anyone left behind, and all on key. By the eighth measure, the prayer climaxes movingly on C --and forgive us our debts—which resolves its poignancy in the gentle cascade back to worshipful E, where Joseph ends our sweet odor of prayer. He nods with a smile at us.

Throughout the hymn, stands Fr. Martin at the altar, washing his hands in preparation for the anaphora. His eyes well with tears listening to us as the hymn’s beauty unites the mind of God and the heart of man at lowly St. Basil’s. “I remember,” he told us later, “thinking this is how the emissaries of Prince Vladimir must have felt the first time they attended an Orthodox Liturgy at Hagia Sophia--"heaven was coming down to meet the earth."
He sings his response:
For thine is the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Glory: of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.
And we, the choir of St. Basil’s, at last mystically singing like Cherubim, chant:
Amen.