Saturday, November 9, 2013

Reflection on Evensong

Last week I heard Hereford Cathedral Choir lead a Choral Evensong service. It was a solemn, high church affair, with incense and bells and the classical liturgical language, full of ‘Thou’ and ‘Thine’ and ‘and with thy spirit.’ It was a beautiful and stirring service.

After most of the prayers were completed, the choir sang an Anthem: Benjamin Britten’s ‘Rejoice in the Lamb.’ (You can read the full text of the piece here.) I was not familiar with Britten or with the poem by Christopher Smart on which it is based. Smart’s poem was written in an asylum, and it is strikingly--but delightfully--odd. It’s a bit like high liturgy meets Samuel Beckett. In ‘Rejoice in the Lamb,’ Britten/Smart rejoice in the lives of a cat and mouse, flowers, letters of the alphabet. Some of my favorite lines describe musical instruments and words that rhyme or sound like them:
“For the instruments are by their rhimes,
For the shawm rhimes are lawn fawn and the like.
For the shawm rhimes are moon boon and the like.
For the harp rhimes are sing ring and the like.
For the harp rhimes are ring string and the like.
For the cymbal rhimes are bell well and the like.
For the cymbal rhimes are toll soul and the like.
For the flute rhimes are tooth youth and the like.
For the flute rhimes are suit mute and the like.
For the bassoon rhimes are pass class and the like.”

It was a bit off-putting to hear these strange words sung by a world-class choir in the midst of a solemn service, but as the work progressed, I began to really appreciate its playfulness and the contrast between its reverential themes and its weird tone. Finally, I decided, why not sing about cats and letters of the alphabet? These things are aso beautiful and as much part of life as are the loftier topics of most other Psalms and hymns.

Embracing the oddities in life is, I think, enlightening, and important for a balanced spirituality. We can get so rigid and dour, set in our ways and sure that we are always right. Light-hearted playfulness reminds us not take ourselves so seriously and often allows us to be confronted by old truths under new garb. It reminds us that all of our theologies, our prayers, our words are, at their best, pointing toward something beyond themselves (God), but are not themselves the point at all. Playfulness helps us let go of the trappings to retain the things that really matter.

So today I am grateful for things that are playful, odd, humorous: for my face caught in a photo at an awkward moment, contorted and squinting; for sloths and duck-billed platypuses and narwhals and chihuahuas; for funny-sounding words (cattywampus, derring-do); for my bus-driver's floppy, fuzzy hat. May I be open to learning from these odd and unexpected teachers.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

God Breathes Forgiveness

God breathes forgiveness, and so can I. With each breath I take in all that I am aware of, the beautiful along with the broken. I say Yes! to all of this because "God is coming to me disguised as my life."

With each exhale I forgive all that is disappointing, fearful, and broken, even myself and my reaction to reality. This includes my feelings of despair, my impatience with the impatient; it includes everything in me that resists reality as it is and even my limitations which blind me to reality as God sees it. The vision that delights and rejoices, weeps and embraces—endlessly joyful and utterly free to love unceasingly in the face hatred, fear, and ignorance.

I wonder if forgiveness isn't more powerful than the desire to change, and perhaps more likely to bring change. The Passion of the Christ and God's ongoing forgiveness seem to suggest that forgiveness is the only plan. Even the final judgement can be seen in this light: A last call, so to speak, on the liberating nectar of forgiveness.

David Norling

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