I find comfort in sacred music

As I cast about for solace and comfort in my currently troubled life, I can’t help but wonder if organized religion might provide an answer.

Generally, there are two ways that people come to their god in a prayer of “Hi, how’s it going? Maybe we should hang out.” Most people are born into the faith of their fathers. This is how I came to be a pious Lutheran during the first 16 years of my life. I was an altar boy, I was an off-key alto in the junior choir and I was confirmed at age 14 following a year of catechism study. (To this day, I remember a key tenet: God good, Devil bad). I believed in God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost, and any other god they might want to come up with.

One of the Gods

Then, in 1969, I experienced a revelation. It came in the form of Jim Morrison, lead singer for The Doors, revealing his private parts during a concert performance in my hometown of Miami. An outraged community of South Florida Christians, led by songstress Anita Bryant, decided to stage a “Decency Rally” in the Orange Bowl. The goal was to demonstrate that most area teens were repulsed by the idea of breaking on through to the other side, lighting fires, and touching Jim, no mater how many times he pleaded “c’mon, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon”.

My church youth group planned to organize a bus trip to attend the rally. By the time they got around to calling and inviting me, my conversion had become complete.

“Gee, I kinda like the Doors,” I told Pastor Papke. And that was the end of my life as a Lutheran.

After a few years had passed, Morrison died of a heroin overdose in the bathtub of his Paris apartment, and Anita Bryant began a long and fruitful career promoting orange juice, homophobia and uplifting music. I had made the right choice.

Now, I am contemplating the possibility of arriving at a religious belief by the second most-common means: a conscious, intentional decision. It’s not a choice I’m quite prepared to make. I’ve spent over 57 years leading a mostly charmed life, free of the major trauma that usually inspires such conversions. (I thought about coming to Christ once around 20 years ago when I got a $280 ticket for speeding in a school zone, but when the judge said he wouldn’t put any points on my license, I lapsed back into apostasy).

Most of American Christianity seems to have been hijacked by right-wing political ideologues and, while I might otherwise consider adopting a mythical worldview involving angels and resurrections and miracles, I’m not quite ready to give up on my belief in national health insurance and the rest of the progressive agenda.

For now, I’m holding onto my plans for a death-bed conversion to each of the top 20 world faiths, hoping the scattershot approach will buy me entrance into somebody’s heaven. (I just hope it’s not Zoroastrianism that turns out to be the One True Religion; I hear they let vultures pluck at your deceased body rather than bury or burn you. Vultures, you may have noticed, are ugly).

See? Ugly, I tell you.

While I might, for now, be able to deny the lure of Christianity, it’s a good bit more difficult to deny that the creed sure has a great soundtrack. Just as I might hate the TV show “Glee,” I still find myself singing along to the cast’s spirited rendition of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'”. (Ironic, huh?) By the same token, I’ve begun recently to search out the traditional hymns and sacred music I recall from my youth as a halfway measure to giving my life over to Christ.

The Lutheran songbook is a rich and inspirational collection of mediocre music that instantly transports me back to those early years of piety. I listen to “Just As I Am” and remember the procession down to the communion font, where I’d get my first sip of wine. I recall “Bless’d Be The Ties That Bind” and remember having to don a too-tight necktie every Sunday morning. “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and “How Great Thou Art” remind me of Protestantism’s appreciation for architecture and the classic paintings of the Renaissance.

But there was no piece of sacred music I’ve ever found more uplifting than Handel’s “Messiah.” My parents incessantly played the Eugene Ormandy/Mormon Tabernacle Choir version on their ancient hi-fi while I was growing up, and ever since I’ve been spiritually moved by the soaring 18th-century oratorio. When I went off to college in 1971, that record occupied as hallowed a place in my collection as did Crosby, Stills and Nash’s “Deja Vu” and the Moody Blues’ “Days of Future Past.” Though my classical purist roommate scoffed at the flaws of the work while simultaneously pointing out it was “Messiah,” not “The Messiah,” and Handel was actually pronounced “Hen-del,” I was inalterably down with George Frederick.

The great "Hen-del"

(The only part I didn’t care for was that you were supposed to stand up during performance of the triumphant “Hallelujah Chorus,” which I always found to be awkward and arbitrary. Why did you have to alter the position of your body just because somebody was playing a catchy tune? Next thing you know, we’d have to bend over for each playing of Bach’s “Prelude in C Major” or put our hands over our ears during Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture”. Actually, that last idea kinda makes sense).

So now, I while away a Sunday afternoon in search of succor, watching funny YouTube videos while Handel’s masterpiece plays over and over as the great composer always intended, on iTunes. Though this particular recording clocks in at just over 100 minutes, the libretto is surprising sparse, encouraging listeners to sing-along.

I love how Handel goes to such lengths to stretch out the lyrics in creative ways. The Mormon Tabernacle singers pronounce “accomplished” as “accomp-li-shed” and turn one- and two-syllable words like “shake” and “desire” into virtual arias of their own: “… and the de-si-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-re of all nations shall come.” He makes it fun to come up with misunderstood lyrics during the few boring parts: “his yolk is over easy and his permanent is light.” Or, “Are we like sheep?” Some of the phrasing is pleasantly cryptic: “He gave His back to the smiters, and His cheeks to them that plucked off His hair: He hid not His face from shame and spitting.” Sing it!

There’s even a bit of frivolity that the Baroque master tosses in near the end, inserting what was meant to be a stage direction — “the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised” — that later interpreters have sung as a lyric. (Though I’d love to see someone stage a back-to-the-original performance that actually included bugle-playing zombies).

By the end of “Messiah,” I feel spiritually lifted up, ready to face my modern-day trials with a faith that there is one who is greater than I. Actually, there are probably millions who are greater than I, and just knowing that takes off a lot of pressure.

Even though I may feel guilty spending the Lord’s Day watching piano-playing cats and the evolution of dance, I know that my soul is at peace and that my burden (and my permaent) is light.

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One Response to “I find comfort in sacred music”

  1. Paul Dixon Says:

    ~Though my classical purist roommate scoffed at the flaws of the work while simultaneously pointing out it was “Messiah,” not “The Messiah,” and Handel was actually pronounced “Hen-del,”~

    Heh-heh. Man, that sounds precisely like the 18 year-old version of me! But 18 is a tricky age. That’s the year when one feels that one knows absolutely everything in the world, beyond the shadow of a doubt. The years after 18 are simply a chronicle of Life’s efforts to show one how completely wrong one was. (Note the emotional distancing going on, seeking refuge in the grammatically correct usage of ‘one’ instead of what I really mean, which is ‘ME!’)

    Nowadays, I can’t remember ever pointing out flaws in ‘Messiah’. But if you wanted to pronounce Handel as ‘Handle’, I would leave you alone, because we only say ‘Hen-del’ if there is an umlaut over the ‘a’. Handel, having spent his life as a German citizen living in England (they did that a lot back in those days…) would have been fine with ‘Handle’. Except the English would have said, ‘Hahn-del’. But who cares what the foppish, effete Brits would say, anyway. I mean-they’ve lost their country to the Muslims and a slavish adherence to political correctness. Just sayin’…

    But I digress. The exciting thing is your present-day struggle with matters of faith, and the good news is that I cannot help you there, and I know that must give you some degree of relief.

    I have struggled with matters of faith my entire life, and, unfortunately, my rational intellect keeps getting in my own way. But I figure that since my personal canon of potential reality includes a belief in the possibility of alien existence, maybe I have some room in there to accept the possibility that the son of God rose from the dead. My problem is that I’m a fairly hard-nosed agnostic, and I haven’t been able to budge very far from that stance over the years. I suspect that the ultimate reality is much weirder and beyond our limited understanding than even things like rising from the dead, multiplying loaves and fishes, walking across open water, etc.

    Plus, over the years, I have become very much a fan of intellectual rigor, demonstrability, replicability, process, and proof. In other words, a scientist at heart.

    But still we intersect on the subject of sacred music. I will never forget the henna-haired 20 year-old with the skin piercings, hip clothes, ironic attitude, etc, who, when asked what she was doing at an Anglican choral Evensong one Sunday evening, replied that “Why should {she] want to hear music that [she] could dial up on her iPod any day of the week when instead [she] could experience music of a profound and transcendental nature?”

    And that’s what it’s all about. Music (sacred or otherwise, but of a permanent quality) is able to lift us out of ourselves and transport us to the feeling that we can practically touch the Divine (whether we believe in it or not). Which, of course, begs the question,”What are we trying to touch if we’re not sure if it’s really there?”

    But that’s a subject for another comment and another time. Good luck on your exploration of sacred music. If you ever need a list of “starter pieces” in this realm, shoot me an email.

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