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Wednesday, August 6, 2014

SongStories 35: Your Mercy Like Rain (Vision, GIA, 1992)

In preparing to write the music that eventually became the collection Vision, I spent some time in Prescott Valley all by myself, with a portable keyboard, a Jerusalem Bible, and a yellow pad. One of the things I wanted to do was to set the two Advent common responsorial psalms, Psalm 25 and Psalm 85, in the way that I thought I had been fairly successful with the psalms I had written for AssemblyBook in the 1980s, that is, by writing a metric paraphrase of the verses. Encouraged by my classes with John Gallen, and through conversations with Gary Daigle and him, though, I also thought that the psalms might have more emotional impact if the refrains were paraphrase, too, or "translated into English."

In retrospect, of course, the paraphrase refrains made them less useful for most pastoral musicians who, with good reason, wanted to use psalm settings whose refrains (at least) matched normative texts. Others might say that rewriting a normative text is like playing tennis without a net—it's a lot easier. Actually, I agree with that thought. But on the other side of the scale, psalms are songs, or at least ritual poetry, depending on to whom you're talking. They're supposed to carry more emotional weight than just words do. And I think that includes the text. Is it even possible to connect emotionally with a text that says, "Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation"? There is just so much generality and religious jargon in that sentence that my spiritual eyes glaze over reading it. Departing from the ritual text is dangerous for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which is heterodoxy. But using the normative text doesn't prevent us from discovering heterodox points of view in the church either, and as long as a normative text is available for study, proof, and reproof, I don't see how adapting the text to a more musical and emotional version for singing can do more serious harm than a bland one does.

So in looking at and studying Psalm 85, I saw that it was probably dialogical in its liturgical use in the temple, a prayer for rain and a song of trust that, in keeping with the covenant, God would provide that rain for the nation. As a desert dweller myself, I felt some kinship with my Hebrew forebears in faith. I know the desiccating heat of the desert, the scarcity of water, the fragility of agriculture. And I also know the heady incense of the desert's smells after a rain, the sweet pungency of wet creosote and the welcome cool humidity of those first hours after much-needed precipitation. Those were the emotions I wanted to connect to as I sought to help connect the ancient biblical words to the human hope for the justice and peace of the reign of God that we so ardently hope for in the Advent (and in all) liturgy.

As I prayed over and reflected on the words of the lectionary refrain, it finally occurred to me that the accents in the text theologically might be on the first person pronouns. Here's what I mean:
Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.
In normal reading we might see this in a couple of ways:
Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.
Probably in a primary way, we're taught to see the nouns first. And these are, indeed, important nouns. But they don't really reveal anything new to us if we accent them. Similarly, putting God first, we might read:
Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.
But here again, there's not much new. We're here for God. Our prayer is always directed to God. It's more of the same: non-revelatory churchspeak. But what about this?
Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation.
Now, I think, we're getting somewhere. Now the antiphon sounds like an Advent prayer. We know what you have done for us in the past, we celebrate what you have done through Isaiah, John the Baptizer, Mary and Joseph, and certainly Jesus. But what about now? How about all the unfulfilled dreams and crooked highways that I'm walking down these days? Will you bring the good things you've begun in me to completion? In our families, in our parish, in our world?

This is the place from which I departed when I wrote the text and music that became "Your Mercy Like Rain." The first two lines of the refrain use first person singular pronouns, the last couplet utilizes the plural, moving the focus from "me/my" to "our." And there's a "This land was made for you and me" quality to the underlying belief system in the psalm text. It is the land itself, Israel's terrain, that is the delivery system for God's bounty. The blessing of God is made visible in the rain that waters the land, the animals that feed on the grass, and in the crops that spring up from that land. We might be a little more sophisticated in our consideration of the relationship between bounty and blessing, but these were simpler times. My musical setting was really an attempt to imitate the longing for relationship, the ache and plea for connection, that is at the heart of so much of the music of Stephen Sondheim, even when he's making us laugh with what he writes.



The choral setting of "Your Mercy Like Rain" is available from GIA, set for SATB voices, flute and oboe (or 2 C instruments) obbligato, and string quartet. It appeared in Gather Comprehensive, First Edition, but missed the cut for later incarnations. I feel the same about it now as I did when I wrote it, though—the music and paraphrased text help to make available some aspects of the psalms emotional  core, and allow us to pray to see the inbreaking mercy of God "with our own eyes," whether Advent falls in late autumn or early spring for barren hearts on this beloved planet.

Psalm 85: Your Mercy Like Rain - Vision (iTunes link)

Your Mercy Like Rain 
Paraphrase of Psalm 85, by Rory Cooney

Let me taste your mercy like rain on my face.
Here, in my life, show me your peace.
Let us see with our own eyes your day breaking bright.
Come, O Morning! Come, O Light!

What God has spoken I will declare:
"Peace to the people of God everywhere."
God's saving presence is close at hand:
Glory as near as our land.

Here faithful love and truth shall embrace,
Here peace and justice will come face to face.
God's truth shall water the earth like a spring,
While justice will bend down and sing.

God will keep the promise indeed:
Our land will yield the food that we need.
Justice shall walk before you that day,
Clearing a path, preparing your way.

©1992 GIA Publications, Inc.