Pandemic, Pedals, and Pentecost

I celebrated this Pentecost Sunday with a virtual Evensong service. While it is certainly not the same from behind a screen and 5,000 miles away, singing together remains a reminder of the Holy Spirit’s presence and work in our lives as believers. As choral composer John Rutter notes, Christianity has always been a “singing faith,” and theologians explain that this is because Christianity has always been a Spiritual faith; the movement of the Holy Spirit as the breath of God is manifest in the breath of believers in unified song.

In Ephesians, St. Paul encourages us to “be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with [their hearts]” (Ephesians 5:18-19). In this, the unity of believers in the Spirit is manifest in the harmony of song; furthermore, song serves to reinforce the communion and fellowship of the saints as a vital form of proclamation and encouragement.

My favourite part of being an organist is facilitating the song of believers. It is my greatest joy to provide the harmonic foundation upon which singers rejoice. Perhaps the reason the organ is so effective for accompanying choirs is that it has the capacity to breathe. The pipes of an organ are themselves similar to members of a choir, each singing with a unique voice and yet all attuned to the same song. Even the name “organ” indicates a sense of its being alive and active, perhaps as intrinsic to liturgical life as our own lungs are to singing. The organ, which breaths out in a mighty wind, is also analogous to the movement of the Spirit.

The organ, however, is also otherly. There is an eery quality to it, for its timbre is at once like and unlike any other instrument; for instance, the viol stop sounds vaguely like a string instrument yet maintains the unique character of being also a wind and keyboard instrument. This is perhaps analogous to the God we worship; He became like us in the person of Jesus Christ and breathes his Spirit into us, however, He is also other. Although we speak of God anthropomorphically and even familiarly as Our Father, Spirit, and Saviour, we must also remember His omnipotent and provident otherness as we worship.

The organ thus provides a foundation for our song, intimately supporting our breath with its own, while also reminding us that the One we worship is far greater than we. This Pentecostal theme is particularly prominent in one of my favourite pieces to play: Bach’s Chorale Prelude, Fantasia on “Komm Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott.”

This piece provides an extended introduction to a Lutheran hymn for Pentecost, the text of which translates:

Come, Holy Spirit, Lord God,
fill with the goodness of your grace
the heart, spirit and mind of your believers,
kindle in them your ardent love !
O Lord, through the splendour of your light
you have gathered in faith
people from all the tongues of the world;
so that in your praise Lord, may there be sung
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

You holy light, precious refuge,
let the word of life enlighten us
and teach us to know God truly,
to call him father from our heart!
O Lord, protect us from strange doctrines
so that we may never look for any teacher
except Jesus in true belief
and may trust him wholeheartedly!
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

You sacred warmth, sweet consolation,
now help us always to remain

joyful and comforted in your service,
do not let sorrow drive us away!
O Lord, through your power make us ready
and strengthen the feebleness of our flesh
so that we may bravely struggle
through life and death to reach you!
Hallelujah! Hallelujah

Although the organ prelude does not include words, it prepares the mood and melody for the choir, much as the Holy Spirit brings with it renewed speech and song.

Right now, although many churches are gradually reopening, it is difficult to celebrate Pentecost Sunday musically; choirs are an at-risk category, for although breathing together is intrinsic to Christian life, it is dangerous in the midst of a health crisis. I believe that we can take heart in the message of this chorale, though, which speaks of the ministry of the Holy Spirit, guiding believers to live courageously as they move through time.

Although the words of this chorale are encouraging, listening to the prelude can be, ironically, a breathless experience. The music is in constant motion, sixteenth notes passing fluidly and quickly between hands and only ceasing after five minutes. It can feel like movement through time: busy, prone to rushing, and overwhelming.

There is hope hidden in the bass-line, however, The melody of the hymn is found in the pedal line and remains a steady foundation for the upper voices. In using the chorale tune as the cantus firmus (the musical layer upon which all else is built), Bach makes a deeply theological statement through music: the truth of the Holy Spirit as proclaimed in the hymn is the essential foundation for all else.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote something similar, using musical analogy to explain the goal of the Christian life:

“There is always the danger . . . that one may love what I might call the polyphony of life. What I mean is that God wants us to love Him eternally with our whole hearts—not in such a way as to injure or weaken our earthly love, but to provide a kind of cantus firmus to which the other melodies of life provide the counterpoint. Only a polyphony of this kind can give life a wholeness and at the same time assure us that nothing calamitous can happen as long as the cantus firmus is kept going.”

Bonhoeffer here speaks of our proneness to get caught up in earthly pursuits, just as in Bach’s music we may be distracted by the intricate counterpoint. However, by seeking the foundation of our faith, everything else begins to make sense, just as listening to the chorale tune in the pedals draws the rest of the fantasia into harmony.

Theologically, God gives His Spirit to guide believers through life and death; musically, the cantus firmus provides a foundation to all other polyphony. As long as the pedal line remains secure, the upper voices will interact in a clearly-choreographed relationship. Just so, believers can move through time and all that it contains—the “polyphony” of life—in the clarity of faith if they hold fast to their eternal foundation.

Right now, we cannot sing together in person but we may choose to rejoice together in Spirit. The world is buzzing in a ceaseless counterpoint which may feel chaotic and deafening. This Pentecost Sunday, however, may we remember the foundation of our faith and the Spirit which sustains us. May we continue to sing from wherever we are and to listen attentively to the cantus firmus who will never fail to “tune our hearts to sing His grace.”

Everyday Miracles

There are two tales to this post, one leading into the other. This is what literature enthusiasts would call a “frame tale” structure, but let’s not clutter this post, intended to be sweet and heartwarming, with literary devices. Instead, let’s begin with the first story…

It was nearly midnight, but my eyes, as usual, would not rest without being lulled to sleep by the words of books. So, stealing across to my bookshelf, I skimmed its neat rows in the dim light for something to read. But I did not want just anything; it needed to be something special… Tolkien? Too heavy. Austen? Too flowery. Poe? Too dark. Even these, among my favorite authors, were not the companions that I sought. Disappointed, I sat back on my bed and 51JJC4Z7VHL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_then, in a flash of inspiration, remembered the slender green volume that I had never gotten around to reading, waiting patiently under my nightstand.

Christmas with Anne and Other Holiday Stories

 By L.M. Montgomery

It was cute and light and adorable, so I read several of its stories before falling asleep. Reading this book was like receiving a Christmas present and I am so glad I waited until now to read it. (Actually, I just forgot that I owned it, but shhh…)  In this story collection, Montgomery writes of a woman sharing the bounty of her picnic basket with suffering strangers, a girl sacrificing her only valuable possession for the happiness of her cousins, and forgiveness restoring friendships. On the surface, these are just good “chicken soup” tales, but I realize that they are also tales of miracles.

When I say “miracles”, I do not mean huge displays of splendor, but tiny instances of service and joy that often get overlooked, but that Montgomery had a special talent for finding and recognizing in her writing. I seek to do the same in my own writing and it is here where the frame story comes into play. You see, the reason I find these stories so touching and lovable is that they are so clearly real.  I do not know if they all happened exactly as L.M. Montgomery penned them, but they are distinctly believable in their displays of everyday Christmas miracles. (I know that sounds like a Hallmark card, but it is true!)

Today, I stumbled upon a Montgomery-esque Christmas tale myself…

My great-grandparents, both in their mid-nineties, live in an assisted living facility. My grandparents (who are pretty great, but not old enough to have the official title) heard that many of the residents of the care center do not have any family left and would be spending the holidays alone. Being the generous-hearted people that they are, they spent their day at the facility handing out gifts to these lonely people and invited me to come along.

As an introvert, I was uncomfortable speaking to and giving gifts to strangers, but, as a musician, I was in my element performing for them. So, forming a rather eclectic quartet of two basses and two sopranos, three friends and I set off to sing, praying that we would successfully sight-read our carols and – I’ll admit- hoping that the elderly residents would be either so tickled or so hard-of-hearing that they would not mind our lack of practice.

They did not.

Well, at least the ones who let us sing for them did not. There was the occasional woman who, upon being asked if she would let us sing for her, replied “I don’t think so,” and shut the door before we could sing the pickup note, but on the whole everyone was gracious. We were offered donations, candies (probably those little strawberry hard candies that everybody has yet nobody buys…), and, by one insistent man, cupcakes.

“No, thank you!” we replied to every offer. “We just wanted to spread some Christmas cheer!” Our listeners would look at us in surprise when we did not ask for anything in return and we would bow and “Merry Christmas” our way down the halls.

None of this really resembles Montgomery’s stories yet, but I suspect that if I had stuck around to hear what happened between the residents after we left, tiny Christmas miracles might have revealed themselves. Even from what little I saw, there were hints of miracles that made my heart happy.

For instance, there was the man in the wheel chair who beamed through our carols, cradling his Christmas gift in his arms. Then there was the woman who declared “This is the best way to wake up from a nap!” and proceeded to hug her friend, who wiped her eyes and wished us all of God’s blessings. And of course, how could I forget the single woman, perhaps a widow, who stood in the doorway with an expression of pure surprise and delight as we sang “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”? Even a husband and wife, who were said to be deaf by a man I assumed to be their son, smiled at us and clapped enthusiastically when we finished our song. And then there was the woman who asked us how much we had to practice to sound so beautiful (we quickly offered to sing another carol to avoid admitting that we had not practiced at all) and after her came the table of friends who applauded even after our truly horrible reading of “Silent Night.” Most poignant to me, however, was when my ninety-six-year-old great-grandfather, who has been more quiet and tired than before lately, laughed aloud, pretended to conduct us as we sang for him and my great-grandmother, and then bragged about us for the remainder of the afternoon to anyone who would listen.

Yes, joy resounded louder than our four voices in the halls of the senior living center. You might not think so to look at the dim rooms and quiet common areas, but behind the doors hung with wreaths and decked with an odd assortment of stuffed animals, holly, and stockings, lived men and women who, by hearing a simple carol, were able to remember Christmases past. As one tearful woman said, “Oh, this brings back so many memories. It’s simply beautiful.”

And it was simply beautiful. We certainly were not the Cambridge singers, being just four teenagers, but even our humble songs stirred memories long forgotten and warmed hearts that might not have been expecting visitors. So really, there were miracles today, and, though on perhaps a smaller scale, they were miracles yet.

Back to the frame of my story and reading Christmas with Anne and other Holiday Stories. The characters continue to be delightful, generous, souls and their stories equally lovable. It makes me want to go back and hug those who we sang for today, especially those who gave my friends and me a bad case of “the feels” with their shows of emotion. It also reminds me to be grateful for those who came with me and helped to make today special for so many, so I must post a brief shout-out here to my loving grandparents and great-grandparents, and especially my fellow carolers, who braved sight-reading and high notes in order to spread Christmas cheer.