I recently had the gift to care for my Mom as she was dying. It was amazing to go through the experience with her, that she went about with such faith, grace and trust. The process of dying and preparing for heaven unfolded before my very eyes.
As I was clipping her fingernails, the memory of her clipping my fingernails as a little child came rushing into my head and overwhelmed me. Yes, roles certainly do reverse. I realized in that and other simple acts, she was letting go, and beginning the process of looking toward her journey home. As she continued in that journey, her trust in God and in others grew. Gradually she lost her ability to walk, and talk clearly, and if she said a word or a sentence, we would be listening with baited breath, as a parent would with its baby’s first words. It was almost like she was gradually changing to be more child-like so she could be “born into heaven” on the other side. It seems like death is something that we struggle with because we are so afraid of the unknown and of letting go. When I thought of that, I remembered I had filed a poem my Dad had written twenty-six years ago that was similar to that very thought:
When We were Born, and When We Die
When we were born, we also died
To life, as seen and lived inside
Our mother’s womb, where safe and warm
We’d lain protected from the storm,
And from the threat of living life outside.
When we were born, we kicked and cried,
Resisting change and terrified
Of life, unknown, upon this earth.
To us, ’twas death instead of birth,
We could not see a door was opening wide.
As so it is, that when we die,
We’re also born to life on high.
No foe is death, a friend is she:
Opening the door, she sets us free.
Gone fear and pain, as to our Lord we fly.
A month ago today Yoshio Inomata, one of our vowed brothers, entered the paradise chapter of his life. Yoshio is from Japan, so in addition to the usual monastic traditions around the liturgies and proceedings, we knew there would be special touches – flowers in the church, food at the reception – from his homeland. At the graveside, we always have a special time of telling stories and placing flowers as we fill the grave. In the middle of December flowers are rare to be found, so some of us had the idea of having the kids make paper cranes for Yoshio. They did a beautiful job, and we had baskets full of the brightly colored birds they passed around to all of us gathered there. As I watched everyone place their birds in the earth with Yoshio, the antithesis struck me: Yoshio’s soul and spirit were flying to heaven even as his body was placed in the earth, and these birds—meant to soar—buried there with him. I suddenly remembered this poem that another of our members had written years ago. Requiescat in pace, Yoshio!
With hollow bones a bird learns how to fly Not once despising frame all delicate, But pushed without the nest his wings to try, Fast finds the air till flight’s inveterate – And pauses not to ponder nor to care How fragile are his limbs amidst his flight, But boldly lifts his wings against the air And mounts the wind all ignorant of fright. And so each day, until he dies, he lives. He soars aloft, aloud, and all replete, Content with gifts that his Creator gives, His weakness making all his life complete. Who curses frailty wisdom needs implore, For only those whose bones are hollow soar.
I have distinct memories of the morning, some forty-six years ago, when my father died. Every facet of that life-changing day is carved in heart and memory, and I expect always will be. Our family gathered in the waiting area outside intensive care, anxiously awaiting word. When the doctor arrived, my mother asked, “Is there any hope”? His kind (and wise) reply was, “We hope he’ll live forever.” For me, it was a moment of decision–insist on what was, or move forward with graceful acceptance. I give this as an example of the difference between hope and Hope: that is, the I want versus what God’s mercy ordains.
When viewed through the prism of hope, life is a shifting pattern of beautiful colors and images. Big picture Hope. The kind I can’t distort or negatively impact. It moves silently ahead, checking dark corners and clearing a path. You can lose your way, lose perspective, lose your wallet — lose any number of things — but my advice? Never lose Hope.
Yesterday, Palm Sunday, we entered into Holy Week, in which our greatest remembrance is the Passion of Christ. One of the most ancient of all chants — the chanted Passion according to St. John — reflects this remembrance. This gospel passion has been chanted for centuries on Good Friday, first being noted in the scriptures with nothing more than symbols indicating those parts chanted by Christ, those by other characters (such as the “turba” or crowd, or Pilate) and finally, a narrator.
Here is a perfect example of the ancient tradition of chanting scripture to “lift it up.” God’s word was meant to be sung in order to help reflect the depth of its meaning.
There is no other chant that carries more weight — more spiritual “gravitas” — than the chanted Passion narrative. It is perhaps one of the simplest chant recitations, yet it carries some of the greatest truths. I think that that is the real lesson inside of this particular chant: its sheer simplicity is the very thing that seems to let it bring forth the incredible beauty of the Good Friday Passion.
Vox in Rama (A voice in Rama is heard), is the Communion chant from the Feast of the Holy Innocents which was celebrated only a few weeks ago. This short but extraordinarily beautiful chant is the outcry of Rachel at the death of her children, and her unwillingness to be consoled. Both the range of this chant and its relentless use of a rising and falling half-step musical motive draw us in to the depth of Rachel’s mourning. Each intermediary cadence leaves us with a sense of incompleteness and each new phrase returns to the opening sense of wailing. The ending itself concludes with the outline of a heartsick major triad on the words “because they are not.”
This is probably not a chant many people heard during the recent feast unless attending a full chanted mass that particular day. It now provides a look into what lies ahead on Good Friday. We hear in this chant some of the same sounds we experience in the final Lamentation of Jeremiah heard at the conclusion of the Pascal Triduum. Indeed, that concluding major triad from Vox in Rama foreshadows similar sounds heard at the conclusion of the Holy Saturday Vigil — before the Great Silence of Holy Saturday which leads us to Easter. We actually hear, through the chant, the ultimate redemption of the slaughter of those innocent children through Christ’s own sacrifice.
Image Credit: Gregorian chant
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This past week, I started reading Heather King’s book on St. Therese of Lisieux. I find it engaging to read, as I can relate to much of the thoughts and conversations in the writing. In the chapter subtitled, ‘on learning to serve’, I was reading along fascinated by some of the psychological insights quoted from various authors, when one simple sentence about Jesus jarred my reading to a halt. Ms King writes, “In fact, fully living his own life, and giving with no expectation of return, was the way Christ conducted all his relationships.”
I can’t even fathom this type of living. It’s easy to know Christ loves all, and all equally, but this depiction of him practically living out this love as a human, seems almost impossible. It grieves me to realize how much I’m always wanting something back from others.
Even on my best, most-giving days, somewhere inside I’m keeping track, keeping a record of what I’m doing as if I’m saving up points or tickets at an amusement park, hoping for a better prize. Perhaps letting go of this unnecessary record is part of how Christ intended for our yokes to be easy and our burdens to be light. I put so much unnecessary thought and emotional baggage into relationships. To give, expecting a certain return, is a way of self-protection–but rather than providing safety, it puts a limit on our creative potential. Jesus taught that the measure you give is the measure you will receive. If we give without wanting back, we open ourselves to the possibility of receiving many times more then we ever could hope for.
This week, we are preparing to perform Vaughn Williams beautiful and heart-wrenching work, Dona Nobis Pacem. Using Walt Whitman poetry as the primary source of text, Vaughn Williams wrote the work just before WWII as an outcry begging the world not to enter another world war. The piece takes the listener on a journey through all sorts of human emotions about life and war. There’s an outcry for peace, followed by a ruthless depiction of the sheer horror and un-humanness of war. Next comes a beautiful portrayal of the hope of reconciliation, followed by a martial and respectful, but sorrow-filled movement titled Dirge for Two Veterans. In the fifth movement the ensemble reaches its height of anguish, crying out to the heavens asking why? Why all this death, turmoil and suffering? Echoing the prophets of the Old and New Testament, the work closes with a triumphal hymn reassuring us that God will have the last word. The work is set down quietly with one last plea for peace.
In the fourth movement in particular, Vaughn Williams is juxtaposing the inexplicable horror and gut-wrenching sadness of war with the dignity and respect of human life. The music sounds triumphant and victorious as the poetry is depicting a tragic scene of a father and son killed together on the front lines.
It’s the same 2 measures in this movement that put a lump in my throat every-time we sing them. The poet has just explained that he can see and hear a sad funeral procession approaching. As it arrives the listener is quickly swept from seeing a sad procession into the grandest and noblest British-sounding march with all the pomp and circumstance the orchestra, organ and choir can muster. It is a triumphal and victorious moment, thrust in among deep anguish. I know this moment is coming in the work, but each time I’m caught by surprise in the sweep of majesty and glory. Vaughn Williams captures this essence. As the created beings in God’s image, we need to be reminded that all human life deserves the utmost respect.
Chant in Holy Week: Audible Mystery, Pain, and Love
There is a vast well of spiritual illumination available through the chants found in Holy Week. As we move from Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, to his crucifixion and ultimately to his resurrection, the chants for Holy Week also reflect this journey. Many of us are familiar with some of the more well-known chants such as, “Hosanna, Filio David” (Hosanna to the Son of David) chanted during the symbolic entry into Jerusalem, or “Ubi Caritas” (Where true love is) which is chanted during Maundy Thursday Mass — the commemoration of the Last Supper.
However, what I would like to highlight are the Lamentations of Jeremiah. These extraordinary pieces, typically chanted by a soloist and followed by a group responsory during the service of Tenebrae, are part of our Divine Office beginning with Vespers on Maundy Thursday and finishing within the Vigil for Holy Saturday.
The outcries of Jeremiah become the outcries of Christ, and the indescribable grief at the downfall of Jerusalem. But what makes these pieces so unique is that each cantor takes these chants (which can be up to almost 10 minutes in length!) and spends weeks in personal prayer, preparing the lamentation so that he or she is able to chant the piece on behalf of themselves and the entire congregation.
In 2007, I was assigned the 8th Lamentation, which occurred during the Holy Saturday Vigil. It was a personally difficult time. As I offered this chant during the vigil, I knew that I was literally being changed as the sound came out of my mouth. Following that service, I remained in the church for several hours — I could not grasp what had just happened. All I knew was that Love itself had just greeted me and changed my life. More than at any other point, I knew that chant would be a part of my life forever.
It’s often something simple that rocks me to the core. An unexpected moment where something touches me in the deep recesses of my inner being in a simple, yet profound and special way. Trying to voice the moment usually makes it feel trite, but it is still a moment when I know that something happened in my spirit, something I may not be able to explain or comprehend, but something I long for, something that gives me the assurance that God loves me, is watching me, and that he has my back. Over the weekend the words of Timothy Rees’ hymn caught me by surprise. “And when human hearts are breaking under sorrows iron rod, then we find that self same aching, deep within the heart of God. God is love, so Love for ever o’er the universe will reign.” This love is predestined, determined and there is not a thing anyone of us can do about it. Wow – we are so lucky. Moment by moment we should readily ask for the courage to fill our lives with this universal promise.
If you listen to the SOL to SOL scale, you’ll discover it has a major sound, and with the exception of one interval (MI to FA), it is like the DO Scale that we all know so well. How can this be? It is because the modal scales are based on a series of whole and half steps in various positions. The arrangement in the SOL scale is very much like that of the DO scale.
The Mode 7 “snippet” is the opening of a most beloved chant, “In Paradisum”, sung at the end of the Office of the Dead, while the casket of the deceased is taken from the Church. It acts as a benediction at the end of the service.
Now listen to this antiphon in it’s entirety, followed by Psalm114, sung in Mode 7.