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Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The words 2.0: Tell me again that you love me

God, left, singing lullaby to humanity, right.
"First tell them what you’re going to tell them; then tell them; and then tell them that you’ve told them." (Rhetorical principle attributed variously to Aristotle, Henry van Dyke, Bennett Cerf, Dale Carnegie, etal.)

If you have the stomach for it, one can occasionally find threads on certain social media outlets in which wags with big mouths and small hearts try to outdo each other in putting down their least favorite liturgical songs. I regret to say that a good number of these are proponents of chant and/or organ music with no tolerance for anything not written on either four ledger lines or three staves, but there's no monopoly on cretinism in the style wars. Some of the favorite targets will be songs like S. Suzanne Toolan's "I Am the Bread of Life," or J. M. Joncas's "On Eagle's Wings" or Bob Dufford's "Be Not Afraid." It's kind of sickening to see this happen, when over a period of forty years or so (fifty, in the case of Toolan's song) one has intense, repeated personal experience of the joy and comfort experienced by people who have sung these songs in liturgical moments. But this, of course, is just empirical data, easily dismissed as anecdotal. The music is terrible, the lyrics are maudlin, and the songs should not, according to these experts, be used in Catholic worship.

I have the idea that when God wants us to get an idea, God keeps repeating it in a language we will understand, language we can experience. That what God does and who God is: God is self-gift, and God makes that goodness and comfort known to us over and over again in various ways so we don't miss it. Now of course this is all culturally dependent, language dependent, all kinds of variables are there. But the gospel is full of Jesus's admonition to his disciples and others, "Do not be afraid." The Christian scriptures overflow with a message of hope that can be summed up as in John 6, where we hear three times: "I will raise (you) up on the last day." (Note: see John 6:20 also!) The message of "On Eagle's Wings," a setting of Psalm 90, is also a message of both being "raised up" by God and "held in the palm of (God's) hand." The overwhelming message of the Christian scriptures is one of hope and divine love for everyone. Now, clearly, this has to be teased out for meaning, and we certainly can't stop there, imagining that God just wants us all to know that we are loved and relax for the rest of our lives. It's also clear that this message is meant for every person on the planet, every one, even those we consider enemies, strangers, outsiders, untouchables or undesirables. And it is part of everyone's job to see that every one can "be not afraid," and that the message of God's love goes out to everyone.

All anyone who hates "Be Not Afraid" has to do to get people to forget it is write something better. Write something as compassionate, as accessible to both musicians and assemblies, something that crosses the boundaries of the covenants and holds together hearts that are broken by sorrow or battered by life, and you'll never have to hear "Be Not Afraid" again. But you won't get there by putting down the song, or appealing to taste or musical rules or anything else from your personal ethic. Write something that can be played by anyone who can play a Beatles song like "Here, There, and Everywhere" on the guitar, and by sung by anyone who sing all the notes in "Happy Birthday," with words taken from and inspired by scripture and woven into a lyric that is completely memorable but doesn't rhyme. Add your own faith, and the faith of everyone who knows you. Maybe you can do it. It won't be easy. And supposing you do it in a way you think is perfect, remember that that perfection has to be received by the church for it to be effective. In short, it's out of your hands, I'm afraid.

But that's not what I want to talk about, really. I just want to say that if we look across the board at what are really the most popular songs we play and hear people singing, the message must be something of what God wants us to hear: Be not afraid; I will raise you up; All are welcome; How great thou art; the Lord is my shepherd; Here I am, Lord; and of course dozens and dozens, probably hundreds, of others that our assemblies can sing at least part of from memory. He walks with me, and he talks with me; Come to the water, Somos el cuerpo de Cristo, We are called to act with justice; Blessed are you, rejoice and be glad, yours is the kingdom of God; I say yes, my Lord; Stand by me; junto a ti buscaré otro mar; I'll cherish the old rugged cross; Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. Our words are the gospel, are all of scripture,  interpreted and distilled and crafted in song, and sometimes, they're just right so that, well, "how can I keep from singing?"

I confess that I write around the margins. I'm not as comfortable with the "affective" side of spirituality, which may be one of many reasons my songs don't resonate with great numbers of people like the above do. I feel that I'm called to write other parts of the gospel message, notably, around the call to conversion, to change, to move out of myself and do for others. This makes it possible, at least, for me to write authentically for me to worship! Turn around! Change our hearts! Serve the Lord! Be perfect! Come to us! Cripes, it's no wonder no one sings my songs, they're so bossy! Even my comfort song, "Do not fear to hope," is a little commandment.

That doesn't stop me from repeating myself. I am so grateful for all the fine women and men who are able to write the songs and lyrics that grab peoples' hearts and remind them of the gospel. I feel my little contribution may be to keep calling attention to the "rest of the story," the cross, call to change, the fact that God's love is universal and so ours needs to be, that "love your neighbor" means "feed your neighbor" and "don't drop bombs on your neighbor" and "don't put your desperate immigrant neighbor in jail and separate her from her children," and that God means all of that in the same way God means "be not afraid." In fact, it's the same word. "Be not afraid" by loving each other. I'm trying to help us put the "our" back in "our Father," and spell out the implications of the Sermon on the Mount and the cross in our worship music. I'm not the only one. We're all doing it. It's just that I'm not likely to write the next "Be Not Afraid," I'm afraid. (Wait...I may have just created a rhetorical Bermuda Triangle of prayer.)

Recently I've tried something in a couple of songs that I haven't tried before: I've pared down the text and music of one song and part of another to a musical mantra called an ostinato. Of course, in church music, I'm the last one on my block to try this. I am not a big proponent of the music of Taizé, another unique quality of my obnoxious personality, but not for musical reasons so much as architectural ones. I've never really worked in a church where that kind of music "works," that is, resonant stone spaces where lots of natural reverberation add a layer of nostalgic beauty to these versatile little choral pieces. I am FOR all kinds of music that work, and I know that Taizé music works wonderfully in a lot of places, even in our little stone daily mass chapel, where a "Kyrie" or "Jesus, Remember Me" has a little breathing room and can expand fill the space like incense.

But the reason I bring this up here is on the same thread of thought as the rest of this post: the thing about an ostinato, the musical equivalent of a mantra, is that it's meant to be repeated over and over again. This means that the text has to be able to bear the weight of repetition, and the music has to be substantial enough to be sung repeatedly without driving everyone nuts. I suspect that the tolerance for this kind of music varies, but the success that Taizé has had with it, with an international clientele, shows that it can be done successfully.

The first idea I had about this was the text that might be called the sh'ma of Jesus, because it is the sh'ma except with a wee addendum and the actual command sh'ma (Hear) is excluded from the text. It is the rabbi Jesus's interpretation of the law, to which we need to give ear. It must be what comes to us in what we call "the greatest commandment" and its yoked equal, to be found in the gospel this November 4, from Mark 12: 29-31.
"Which is the first of all the commandments?"
Jesus replied, "The first is this:
Hear, O Israel!
The Lord our God is Lord alone!
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind,
and with all your strength.
The second is this:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

There is no other commandment greater than these." 
I first had the idea about setting this text about a year or so ago, and talked to a couple of other composers about it who chose not to work with it, so I figured I'd try it myself. I adapted the text a little bit, so that it would have a simple (soft) rhyme for mnemonics' sake, and a word substitution I'll explain in a second:
With your whole heart,
With your whole soul,
With your mind, your time, and your wealth,
Love the Lord your God who first loved you,
Love your neighbor as yourself.
The word in Dt. 6:5 and in Mk. 12:30 that is translated as "strength" translates an Aramaic word that means "wealth." The Greek word that usually translates it means "very"—it's an adverb. The sense of it seems to be "whatever is the source of one's influence," one's "very-ness" overflows into the world. Clearly the sense of the saying "with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength" is just to say "completely, inside and out." But I think concretizing "strength" as "wealth" may help expand the semantic field here, and begin to open up the implications of loving God, much as the Rabbi Hillel did on the parallel text when saying, "Whatever you hate for yourself, do not do to your neighbor."


When I think of a musical mantra, my mind immediately goes to the St. Crispian's Day scene after the Battle of Agincourt in the movie Henry V, the Branagh adaptation of the Shakespeare play. You might recall that after winning the battle in which they were on foreign soil and terribly outnumbered, the English soldiers and their king discover that their pages had been murdered behind the lines by the French. In that gut-wrenching scene, the bloodied Branagh and his bone-weary knights carry their pages across the battlefield to a small nearby church and graveyard. While this dolorous procession takes place in the shadow of the victory, the music being played is a choral ostinato for mens' voices with the text "Non nobis, Domine" from the first verse of Psalm 115, "Not to us, Lord, not to us, but to your name give the glory."

So when I went about to set this text to music, this was my model. I wanted it to be self teaching, have a choral element, and instrumental descants. So it begins instrumentally, has a cantor intone the tune, then some unison singing, terracing choral parts, a three-bar bridge, and a final stanza with trumpet in a new key. It's not as simple and tractable as "Jesus, Remember Me," but I think it carries the simple beauty of the text and allows our hearts to drink it in.

Some of my beta-testers suggested a deceptive cadence, but I couldn't figure out how to get both parts, "love God, love your neighbor as yourself" into a coda after the cadence, without turning into another verse that would, of course, be new musical material thus eliminating the assembly right at the best part. So I opted just to end it at the end of the phrase.  (Write me for a copy of Greatest Commandment)

The other text was the second part (I see it as processional music) of the song I wrote for the Vincentians that I've bored you with before. (Writing about music that you can't really hear yet is so boring, so I'm trying to keep it trimmed to the essentials.) After four stanzas of a chant-like melody that praises God for being an exile and captive God-with-us, going into Babylon with the Israelites and into death with Jesus, and praising God as well for continuing to be present with hungry, thirsty, and naked of the world in a nod toward Matthew 25: 31-46, the ostinato begins, and we sing over and over again, "I was a stranger and you welcomed me." Again, here, the context of the ostinato in the whole text, its context in Matthew 25, its context in the liturgical procession, will I hope encourage us to consider that the stranger ("me") might be God, might be the person standing next to you, might be, finally, "me." Similarly, "you" could be any of those entities. The relationship between "I" and "others," "I" and "thou" or "Thou," is at the heart of that text, and making it into an ostinato helps give us the time to let that sink in, I hope. It certainly seemed to happen in St. Louis among the Vincentians, who have had that experience of God and neighbor on every continent (well, maybe excepting Antarctica.) (Write me for a copy of I Was a Stranger)

Well, to summarize, I suppose that my faith leads me to trust that God is in charge of God's own liturgy somehow. We gravitate to these comforting scriptural phrases and allusions in our music because mercy is the center of the gravity in the universe. Now, part of the truth of that is the implication that that mercy falls upon all equally somehow, and that for those who recognize God as its source, we have an obligation to live justly, to be the incarnation of that mercy as much as we possibly can. There is a lot of crushing pain in the world, so it seems to me that God's answer to that is a chorus of "Do not be afraid," "I will raise you up," "how great thou art," and "All are welcome." Singing those songs is part of our rehearsal for living. Where our words go, where our music and our hearts go, may our bodies follow. The presence of those songs, and the popularity of some over others, is the word of God alive in our worship today. I have to believe that.

Following the rhetorical lesson I quoted at the top of this article, the ostinato is a way of letting the message of scripture sink into our being as surrender to the text, God's word, telling us what it's going to tell us, telling us, and then telling us what it told us. God doesn't want us to miss the message, so there's a hunger in our hearts to know that we're loved, to know that there's shelter from the storm, to know there's a way out of hell, and it's all in singing together, especially as a first step toward actual solidarity among us.

As for me, my inability to communicate in the affective language of love, I nevertheless continue to try to sing and invite you to sing along some of the edges of the gospel that are open to the implications of love that mean changing ourselves, our structures, and our world, relying on other songs to help me remember to "be not afraid," that God will "stand by me," and that "all the love you've poured on us can hardly be believed." We need each other for that. Love is of a piece; we just need to be courageous enough to act on the implications of all that outpouring of divine devotion. So I think we need the songs that help us remember texts like "love your enemies" and how there's no road to resurrection that doesn't take the Cross-town bus.

As for popularity, well, "success is not the prize." And you never know. The world could be about to turn.