“The Whole Earth is our Hospital”: Words when Words Fail

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For those of you who do not know, I am currently studying “Theology and the Arts” at the University of St. Andrew’s, Scotland. Most recently, my practical criticism class has been reading T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. As we finished our session on “Little Gidding,” the fourth quartet, my professor sighed deeply. Suddenly emotional, she told us emphatically that above any academic gain, she hoped that we would internalize Eliot’s poetry so that we can recall it in times of need. She suggested memorizing full passages, not to show off in seminars, but to comfort ourselves in times when our own words fail.

Little did we realize, but that class session was to be our last. In the past few days, the pandemic situation has escalated far beyond what any of us could have imagined and, today, the University sent the devastating news that our courses will be completely online and urged us to return to our homes if possible.

In the days leading up to this announcement, I was numb: expecting the worst, but hoping it would not be so. Words, which come so easily for me even in times of stress, ceased. Even my thoughts were unclear and I felt ironically trapped at the thought of leaving. As I often do in times of distress, I sought movement and height, climbing the spiral stairs to the top of St. Rule’s tower at the Cathedral and thinking of nothing more than measuring my steps and minding my head. At the top, I removed my battered, much-annotated copy of Four Quartets and began to read my favorite, “East Coker,” over St. Andrew’s.

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Not only was I indeed standing on “Old stone to new building” as Eliot writes in the first movement, but I felt that at such a height and in such an ancient place, I truly was glimpsing the cycles of time that he describes. I felt that I was gaining perspective and could truly believe—as the cold wind whipped my hair across my eyes—that “there is a time for building / And a time for living and for generation / And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane.”

The most heartwrenching, yet comforting words came in the fourth movement of “East Coker,” however. Indeed, I believe the Word enters into this movement. I will include the first and third stanzas, but encourage you to read the full movement or poem here: https://genius.com/Ts-eliot-four-quartets-east-coker-annotated

“The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart. . .

The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere. . . “

The phrase “The whole earth is our hospital” is especially poignant. How true this has become. And yet, our “wounded surgeon”—paradox though He seems—will not abandon us. He knows suffering.

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We cannot naively ignore the state of the world as sick, spiritually and physically. People are suffering illness and death, as well as selfishness and resentment. Disappointment is rampant. Eliot’s poetry timelessly engages such atrocities yet points to a Saviour who did not simply remove our self-made trials but entered into them alongside us as living and dying flesh. Being able to recall Eliot’s words when my own failed has been an unmeasurable blessing and one which, ultimately, drew my heart back to the Word who is both my beginning and end.

Half Cadence

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Performing in the beautiful St. Salvator’s Chapel, St. Andrew’s

An audio recording of this article is available here:

As an accompanist, one of my favorite things to do when a rehearsal needs some comic relief is to begin a cadence but stop before the final chord. Hearing a dominant chord ringing without resolution drives my fellow musicians insane. I revel in this small rebellion.

Usually, though, I cannot handle the aural discomfort either, and I surrender to the tonic chord. Especially with the added suspense of the unresolved preparatory chord, it is lovely when every tone settles at last into consonance. It’s like a period at the end of a sentence, a bow on top of a present, a fitting simile at the conclusion of a quippy blog post.

Unfortunately, a lot of times life is like an unresolved cadence. The more entrenched in adult life I become, the more complicated the world seems. As an aspiring poet, I allowed myself to lament this in verse. However, I am also a pragmatic soul who recognizes that, while angsty poetry can be beautiful, existential crises can only go on for so long and don’t generally make things better. Eventually, we simply must lay aside our journals and return to our work and relationships, no matter how uncertain we may feel.

Several times before, I have drawn on the two constants in my life—faith and music—to make sense of my situation, and this is perhaps why an unresolved cadence became such a striking idea. Musical analogy often makes clear to me what otherwise seems overwhelmingly complex. Well, right now, I am living in an unresolved cadence.

I cannot rush ahead to the resolution as, this time, I am not the one in control of the keys. Still, as dissonance strains toward resolution, I, too, must move forward in anticipation. Although many things are uncertain, I can sound out possibilities as I continue to work, pray, and hope toward my next steps.

I remember, too, the reality that there will always be tensions and unfinished cadences. Indeed, all of life—and especially the Christian life—is lived in the rest between chords and in the expectation of a final, perfect, triumphant cadence. For now, I suppose, just realizing that I am in a time of not-yet resolved tension is enough to sustain me.

Now, how about some poetry?

I rest in preparation of the final chord,
In the echo of a tonic held within—
Unresolved, hearing not what I strain toward,
Riding inverted waves again, again, again. . .

I rest in the plague of an unsung Amen,
A half-writ chorale lacking its last word.
Unsure of the tune, I struggle through the hymn,
Hoping against harmony for a radiant risen third.

I rest in a cadence not yet concluded,
Awaiting consonance beyond my skill,
Unhearing, all my practiced art denuded,
Trusting deafly to my own Composer’s will.

I rest in accented anticipation:
Untempered dissonance awaiting revelation.

Rejoicing in Repetition

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“And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” – 1 Thessalonians 2:13

My current favorite song—“Shape of Love” by Passenger—keeps popping up in my Spotify playlists and I never skip it. Its opening chords make me smile no matter how many times it has played today already. Similarly, as I said in a previous post, I eat the same breakfast every day and have not yet grown entirely tired of porridge.

Often I run the same trail, and my legs rejoice at cresting its hill, no matter how many times I have done it before. Likewise, I have been known to pick a favorite café and show up every day in pursuit of a honey oat latte. (If you are ever in Gilbert, AZ, do visit Mythical Coffee, or Enchanted Coffee Bar in La Mirada, CA.)

And yet, while there are these things which I seem never to tire of, I am perpetually restless in my devotional life. From flipping open my Bible at random to reading straight through without really taking in its words, I am guilty of every single sin of inattention. For a theology student, this is an area of weakness, but for a Christian, this is critical. It should be deeply concerning to any Christian who grows bored in his or her engagement with the Word since it is that very Word which promises eternity. Yet, even knowing this, I never fail to fall behind in those “read through the Bible in a year” plans, and my hodgepodge hoping-the-right-passage-will-fall-open-in-my-lap plan is even less effective at holding my focus.

“And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.”

– 1 Thessalonians 2:13

For two summers as an undergraduate student, I did a study abroad trip in Cambridge, England, and was required to read the books of Ephesians and Colossians, respectively, every day for three weeks. This immersion method sounded tedious at first, but after only a few days, my natural craving for regularity kicked in and I found myself delighting in the Scriptures in a way I had been missing for years. Soon, I was memorizing passages without meaning to, finding new insights with each reading, and even discovering the value of comparing various translations and reading the books themselves in different orders.

Recently, however, I went through another Scriptural-drought. In bored surrender, I decided that I would just reread 1 Thessalonians every day, as well as pray my way through the great Puritan Prayer Book, The Valley of Vision. And, while the repetition at first seemed as bland as having my morning porridge without heaping spoonfuls of honey, I am slowly realizing the truth of the Psalms:

“How sweet are your words to my taste,
sweeter than honey to my mouth!
Through your precepts I get understanding;
therefore I hate every false way.”

-Psalm 119:103-104

Not only am I finding that I crave the sweet familiarity of the Word with each new day, but I am also rediscovering its nourishment. Each rereading, beyond merely bringing delight, grants new understanding which then develops into practical application, just as the Psalm proclaims.

Savoring a tenth rereading of Thessalonians this morning, I wondered why more believers do not practice this method and, indeed, why I was so initially resistant. I am now reminded of G.K. Chesterton’s words:

“Children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged . . . grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

– Chesterton, “The Ethics of Elfland”

We are told by Christ that we must become like the little children to inherit the kingdom of heaven (Luke 18:17). Perhaps we must repossess that childlike love for repetition without boredom in order to truly inherit the Word as well. Indeed, Chesterton attributes this virtue of children—to delight in apparent monotony—to their “fierce and free” spirit. Even and especially as grown-up Christians, however—as little children adopted by God through Christ Jesus—we ought to live in this Spirit of such ferocity and freedom, such strength and grace.

Indeed, this is the maturity of believers, that we experience afresh the joy and confidence of children, all while growing deeper and truer in our faith and understanding. We cannot grow in these without Scripture, and so, just as the sun insists on rising each day, we must steadfastly return to our morning routines—our daily porridge and honey lattes—and to our regular re-immersion in the Word, one book, over-and-over, at a time, all the while learning to pray:

“Form my heart according to the Word,
according to the image of thy Son,
So shall Christ the Word, and his Word,
be my strength and comfort.”

The Valley of Vision, “Christ the Word”

 

A Lesson in Time

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I posed for this picture without really putting much thought into the words on the wall. Right now, I am where I want to be: at home, writing in my favorite spot with snickerdoodles in the oven. At the same time, though, I am still caught in the in-between. This weekend, I will visit a dear person and place in California. Two days later, I’ll return home to Arizona for a day. Then, I’ll turn right back around and fly to the UK for another semester. I am everywhere and nowhere, yet the words “You are right where you are supposed to be” ring true in my ears. 

“How can this discontent in-between be where I am supposed to be?” I wondered (not for the first time) as I sat down at the piano this evening. I struck the opening chords of Chopin’s Barcarolle in F-sharp Major, Op. 60, and let muscle memory take over. As I played this familiar piece, I found myself struggling as always with timing; despite grueling hours with a metronome, I still slow down in the bits I really love and skim over the more treacherous passages.

My life (as is so often the case) parallels my musical practice. Before returning to the United States for Christmas, I remember praying that my month at home would feel at least as long as my grueling month of final papers and exams. I hoped so desperately that the unpleasant days before my departure would speed by and that my equal time at home would somehow slow down. Yet, predictably, my final month of the semester felt like an eternity and now—although I feel like I’ve barely touched down—I am preparing to leave once more. Try as I might, I cannot alter time.

Similarly, a superficial manipulation of speed does not improve the music I produce. While it might allow me to linger in lovely passages and rush through nasty technical bits, my inability to keep time destroys the beauty of balance. In his Barcarolle, Chopin writes gorgeous lines that my hasty fingers destroy in their race to the finish. He also includes glorious melodies that my romantic soul savors in excess. Unchecked, I easily make a lopsided, sentimental mess of one of the greatest works of piano literature.

The mantra that “music is in the silence between the notes” is attributed to Mozart, Debussy, and Miles Davis. While its origins might be murky, the quote itself—much like the literal writing on the wall in my photograph—rings true. Without the proper placement of sound and silence, there can only randomness and noise. Music, then, is made by ordering these contrasting elements within time.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”
– Ecclesiastes 3:1

Music, like earthly life, is a temporal art. Both are worked out and made beautiful in time. Although I grew to despise the metronome that revealed my faulty counting, it taught me to work through difficult passages and to not cling to smooth phrases beyond their allotted pages. Whether playing an exquisite harmony or a grating dissonance, I was right where I needed to be within the piece and in time. Only by realizing that time is the basis for musical movement and beauty could I begin to submit to the metronome, the composer’s writing, and—ultimately—to the proper engagement of sound and silence, dissonance and harmony, ease and struggle.

In the same way, though I resent the travel schedule that hastens my departure from home, I am thankful, for it is one of the beams that measure my days. In the dissonance of not only being in my early twenties but also moving between continents, I too-often fear that I am not where I am supposed to be. However, while the place may not always be ideal, the timing is perfect.

“O LORD, make me know my end
and what is the measure of my days;
let me know how fleeting I am!”
– Psalm 39:4 (ESV)

As in a well-composed piece of music, I may struggle with technique or indulge in romanticism, but I cannot skip ahead or return to before. Instead, the order and beauty of the music depend upon recognizing that the present is always moving yet always where it is meant to be in time. In this musical, mysterious way, I am always exactly where I am supposed to be. 

A Little Paper Reflection

IMG_3205Look at that massive stack of books with your little pink notebook on the top, open like the bud of a daisy and crawling with notes. Even those huge volumes by writers with high-brow names like Humphrey and Sacheverell did not grasp everything, nor succeed in having the last word on the subject.

Yes, even the most pompous, satisfyingly-thick, black-bound biographies have gaps in their scholarship and may fade into dust-gathering anachronisms. “Of the making of many books, there is no end,” after all.

But isn’t that comforting, in a way? And wonderfully liberating? If those authors you so admire could not write everything in 500 pages, why do you feel the pressure to do so in 20? Or 30? Even 60?

No, do not worry about saying everything. After all, your paper is only a small daisy in a vast forest of former trees, books upon books upon books that you can traverse by footnote but never fully explore.

But isn’t that exciting? After all, forests need flowers too, and you will never run out of trails to investigate, paths to forge.

So write what you can. Tend to your small bit of knowledge and watch it grow up among the leaves of books and the dust of authors past.

The Philanthropist

He began the fall in wealth,
His arms hanging heavy with green, new-money
Made in spring.
It was the cash that grows on trees:
Easily spent and easily made,
Budded by summer and
Minted by the gold-standard sun.

Investing at Autumn’s asking,
He lays a few leavings in her chill-bone hands
But scatters the rest in splendour
As on her bridal path.
He takes care to appear choosy,
Particular and piecemeal as
A widow with her mite,
Though he is secretly as prodigal as his creator
As wistful as a lover,
Plucking a piece at a time from his boughs
And sending it off,
Hopeful as a love letter,
Yellow as a first rose,
And dancing in girlish spirals
on its way down.

Down, down, down to the banks.
A copper here.
A penny there.
Soon he will rest.
Soon he will lay down his last life
And wait half-dead in winter’s retirement.
But for now,
As a bird feathers her nest,
He lines the road with dew-damp gold,
Lavishing heaven’s riches on earth
For a few more weeks, if not
For Eternity.

Theme and Variations

Not long ago (though it seems a lifetime), I wrote about modulations. The idea that the dissonance of post-college life would eventually resolve into normalcy was comforting; considering the modulations in music were consoling to me as I felt keenly the sudden transitions I experienced after four years of relatively little change. 

Several months later, I find myself facing another transitional period as I recently moved to Scotland to pursue my master’s in “Theology and the Arts.” Despite my love for this country and its culture, I was nervous: where would I fit in? Back in the States, I had clear roles, routines, and relationships. A creature of habit, I was overwhelmed to find seemingly everything changing, from my time zone to breakfast foods.

Just as a musical metaphor was helpful in reframing how I approached this past summer, I found that the same to be true of settling into a new place and new chapter. In-between, the key is modulation. Now, though, it is theme and variations. Theme and variation is perhaps the simplest musical form to explain: pick a melody or some other musical statement and repeat in different ways until it wears out its welcome. This compositional structure provides the basis for both smaller, stand-alone pieces (such as Mozart’s classic 12 Variations in C Major, K. 265, which most will recognize as “Twinkle Twinkle”) and larger works (such as Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Bach’s Goldberg Variations).

The trick to listening and learning such pieces is simply to memorize the key theme and then discover its subsequent incarnations. Indeed, this is the key to internalizing music of all sorts, for it is difficult to ever truly escape from themes and variations. For instance, during my sophomore year as a piano major, I was assigned a piece that was — so I thought — far, far beyond my capabilities. Near tears, I asked my teacher how on earth I was to conquer it. I could not imagine my hands becoming familiar with and even fond of this monstrous composition.

“Memorize it bit by bit,” was my teacher’s first bit of advice. “Start with the main themes and motifs and then find how they vary and develop.”

Learning this piece was a war won by small battles. Still, I came to know it better than any other, and, though it challenged me with every practice session, it became mine. The professor in the studio next door came to recognize that when he heard its opening theme, I must be at work. That daunting piece went on to earn me my first victory in the university’s piano competition and, more importantly, I found that I was able to play it with surprising joy.

Any modulation, be it a new piece or a new chapter in life, must be conquered the same way: Identify a theme, find its variation, and move on to the next. During my first weeks in St. Andrew’s, I have intentionally sought out the elements that I know to be essential themes in my life and, finding these (though in slightly different forms) I have felt more and more at home.

For example, throughout both high school and college, I was the on-call accompanist at my schools. This is a key theme that makes me feel as though I fit in, as though I have a clear role and am known for my skill set. So, as soon as I could, I introduced myself to the music directors at my new university and, within an hour, had several gigs lined up. As an organist and choral singer, I pursued and quickly found a church music ministry. My community of faith and worship during my undergraduate years was essential to my wellbeing and service. Fully aware of this and feeling keenly its absence, I immediately pursued a new position in the same vein, with similar yet diverse people.

Knowing the themes I relied on for normalcy back home, I ardently sought their Scottish variations, and with each new rendition of a continuing idea, I perceived the puzzle of my life falling more and more into alignment with what it ought to be. 

The same is true of smaller elements, of motifs. Themes, in music, are generally the larger building blocks of composition; they are the melodies that recur and are recognizable no matter their evolving ornamentation or transpositions. Motifs, however, are the smaller elements that, though often only a single chord or ornament, are sure to be felt if missing.

My motifs are running trails. Bookstores to sniff around. A coffee shop to frequent. Possibly a garden with a particular bench. Houseplants on my windowsill. Floral accents to everyday items. These seemingly unimportant things are the glue that hold the larger blocks — the themes — together in harmony. Again, similar to the piece I learned years ago, as soon as the small pieces are in place, the larger ones become more manageable. 

Motifs are often quicker to come than themes, making them the best place to start when feeling overwhelmed in a new place or new stage of life. It is so much easier to thrive in the grand scheme of things when the small details are tidy and familiar. Find them, these little things that bring you back to your senses. Love them and cultivate them and use them to string together longer melodies, making yourself at home again in foreign modes, unknown places, until these new-yet-familiar themes, too, become a part of your life song.