A Conductor Meditates on Wilderness, the Desert, and Finding His Way Back to an Authentic Experience of Music
March 16, 2012 Comments Off on A Conductor Meditates on Wilderness, the Desert, and Finding His Way Back to an Authentic Experience of Music
The desert and wilderness seem to be a consistent theme in our Lenten meditations, and I would like to reflect on this with respect to music, especially the music we hear or sing during the celebration of our masses during this season. From a geographic perspective, one is most commonly drawn to the familiar and unsettling definitions of wilderness and desert, I would instead like to draw us toward the beauty, mystery and magic that is found in both of these landscapes, both metaphorical and physical. There is a quietness and solitude that can elicit, if the soul is open and available, a new understanding of both oneself and that which surrounds us. It is no accident that people of faith from many world religions, from the Fathers of the Church, to the Nepalese Buddhists, to Native American shamans, have had visionary experiences while alone and wandering in the wilderness and desert. We, when in our own familiar surroundings, are often too distracted by the background noise of our lives giving potentially important spiritual experiences less of a chance of penetrating our ever so intricately constructed barriers. What we hope to experience are thoughts and meditations that might not normally surface when we don’t take time, or are invited to make the time in a season such as Lent. It is in these precious moments of authenticity that we allow ourselves to observe, reflect, and process the word and real presence of God, when he himself, or through the hands of others, speaks to us.
The first thing we notice when entering our church for mass on Ash Wednesday is the absence of familiar iconography and the addition of the Stations of the Cross. We for a time are asked not to depend on the comfortable and familiar, but the occasional and disquieting images of the events leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus. The music of the season follows suit, from the congregational hymns either sung with a very subdued organ or – especially moving for me – with no organ at all, to the choral offerings which call us to reflect upon the nature of the season. When the first lines of the introit are sung the stage is immediately set for a season of introspection and self-examination. Perhaps the most poignant change in the Liturgy of the Word is the Tract at the Gospel procession. Taken from the psalms, it replaces the Alleluia; supplanting exuberant praise with quiet reflection.
At the imposition of the ashes, we hear the Great Penitential Psalm. Our tradition at St. Luke’s is to use the composition by Italian composer, Gregorio Allegri. Hearing it in Latin this year was especially moving and appropriate. The text speaks of repentance, self examination, a desire for redemption and perhaps most importantly, asking God how best to achieve it. It sums up the entire Lenten journey in a single text. And so it begins. Each year it is the same, an open door inviting us to embark on our own inward journeys into the desert and through the wilderness.
I don’t want to dwell on the specifics of our choir’s magnificent Lenten repertoire; that goes without saying. I would rather explore what the experience of the musical journey of Lent can offer. Identifying a new way of allowing music to move me is especially important because, as a conductor, it is a luxury that I am not always allowed to enjoy. During Lent, in my journey into the desert, I endeavor to relinquish my control over music in favor of my availability to music. I give myself the gift and opportunity to step back from the mechanics of music making and loose myself in the experience of music itself. I react not only to the text, but the color and texture of each piece. Is it jubilant or somber? Is it richly textured or sparsely constructed? Is it brightly toned in multi-colored light or in the deeply complex and yet subtle hues of deep shadow? Like looking at the colors of a finely wrought stained glass window, the same host of possibilities exist with sound. Sound is as sacred and holy a sensation as taste, smell or touch and is especially enhanced by a quiet and open experience. I inhale the sounds and hold them in my soul allowing the experience of it to expand and transform. It is the subtle beauty like that of desert and wilderness that transports me to the place where the composer invites me to see the face of God. It is possible for me to worship without music, but I would rather not. There is something in this particular gift that moves me in such a highly personal way. Sometimes intimate knowledge of a thing can diminish its inherent spiritual experience. We have all said: “Well, I guess I just know too much about it”. During this season the goal is to get beyond the artistic vocation, conservatory education, and technical experience, and put myself in the place beyond academic knowledge and into that place: the wilderness and desert of personal reflection and self-awakening experience.
– John Bradley
March 7, 2012 § 2 Comments
I’ve been thinking about Jesus’ wilderness experience lately. The forty days and forty nights in the desert after his baptism. The time we’re ritually recalling now as Lent. I’m not exactly sure why this has been on my mind. It’s nothing I’ve focused on before.
I’m trying to figure it out. Perhaps a closer look at the story itself might help. What is in there—specifically—that’s been holding my attention? It’s not exactly the temptation part. Not at the moment, anyway. It has more to with why Jesus was there in the first place and how he got through it. I think that’s the crux of it for me.
Here is a guy who, as far as we can tell from the scriptural accounts, presents himself to John for baptism, signaling his intention to align himself in some way with John’s messianic preaching. What it was that was in Jesus’ head at any given time has been and remains the subject of pretty intense debate, so it’s not clear who Jesus knew himself to be at that moment. All we can go on, really, is his action. And his action, as it’s narrated to us, is for him to put himself in the way of God’s unfolding work among God’s people in the ministry of John the Baptizer. We see Jesus presenting himself for baptism and then—wham—he’s being driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit to contend with the powers of darkness for forty days and nights. Into a rocky, lonely, inhospitable place. Wandering. Just waiting. And for what? He must have had no idea. All he knew is that he’d been driven into the desert because he had an inkling that God was doing something and he wanted to be part of it somehow.
That’s what, I think, has been so haunting to me these past few weeks. Jesus offered himself up to God in order to be of service and found himself in a wasteland for an unknown length of time, for an unknown purpose, getting beaten up by the elements, hunger, thirst, and the Devil. He agonized and wandered and suffered. But he was driven. He couldn’t turn back.
If he could have gone home, I think he certainly would have. Only masochists suffer for fun. The rest of us either change our situation or endure suffering because something very valuable to us makes it bearable and meaningful. That’s the drive that keeps us moving through the difficulty rather than turning back. We endure painful medical treatments for the sake of our long-term health. We push ourselves to the very limits of our physical endurance for the sake of athletic achievement. And so on. But in this wilderness experience, that impetus to carry on was totally lacking. As far as we can tell, Jesus had no idea where he was going, when or if he would get there, or what he would find when or if he arrived. He was simply driven. That’s the only reason he didn’t turn back. Like a contemplative or mystic who finds herself in what St. John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul,” the “arid place,” as Teresa of Ávila called it, where one’s spirit can find no rest or refreshment, Jesus was in a lonely place of total abandonment for who knew how long and for who knew what purpose because he had to be there. He trusted in the God who had brought him there—and that was enough to get him through, despite the suffering.
That is a pretty powerful image. Trusting in God so deeply that it drives you to endure tremendous hardship of unknown duration for an unknown reason, but at the same time not being able to do otherwise because your trust opens you to being driven into that wilderness and to being transformed. Of course, because we believe in a good and loving God, we know that ultimately there is an Easter on the other side of that vast expanse of God-only-knows-what. But it takes a spiritual bravery of a kind that leaves me awestruck to carry on alone and hurting solely on the basis of that hope. And yet…
– Scott MacDougall