Program Note: Three Poems on Grief and Faith

In May of 2018 I led the choirs and orchestras of TCC Wayland and Westgate Church in a concert which included three original pieces I wrote over the last few years. Here is the program note that accompanied these pieces.

Program Notes:

In greyish doubt and black despair
I drafted hymns to the earth and the air
Pretending to Joy, although I lacked it
The age had made lament redundant.

So here’s the question – who can answer it–
Was he a brave man, or a hypocrite?
– In Black Despair by Czeslaw Miloz

I’m excited to share three pieces on tonight’s program of my own composition. These draw texts from three poems that have been meaningful to me on my own spiritual journey. Though some come from a very real place of brokenness and emptiness, these songs are prayers for anyone who has walked through loss, trauma, heartbreak, grief, or failure. They are for anyone who has walked the path of Christ. Perhaps tonight, you feel broken or beat down by life. Whether this feeling is a kind of grief from an external loss that you had no control over, or a kind of shame because you did have control and missed the mark, these songs speak directly to that place. And the Gospel is this – God knows our story, knows our failures and losses, and turns toward us in love.

As for me, I can say with confidence these words by T.S. Eliot:

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.”

1. Overture: When in the Soul of the Serene Disciple • Text by Thomas Merton (1977)

One who finds themselves at the end of themselves will resonate with these words by Thomas Merton, a Cistercian monk, theologian, and poet. His poem recalls the feeling of emptiness and despair and is the scene we find ourselves at the beginning of a spiritual journey. When consoling one enduring grief, the best thing to do is often to say nothing at all, and Merton understands this. “Be still: there is no longer any need of comment.” 

When in the soul of the serene disciple
With no more Fathers to imitate
Poverty is a success,
It is a small thing to say the roof is gone:
He has not even a house.
Stars, as well as friends,
Are angry with the noble ruin.
Saints depart in several directions
Be still:
There is no longer any need of comment.
It was a lucky wind
That blew away his halo with his cares,
A lucky sea that drowned his reputation.
Here you will find
Neither a proverb nor a memorandum.
There are no ways,
No methods to admire
Where poverty is no achievement.
His God lives in his emptiness like an affliction
What choice remains?
Well, to be ordinary is not a choice:
It is the usual freedom
Of men without visions.

Notice how Merton describes this failure in seemingly contrasting terms – the life of a disciple is a “noble ruin.” Our failures and losses are not turned into successes, but can be viewed as a “lucky wind” because by walking through them in faith we stop trying to earn our salvation and earn our worth by our own merits. We can turn to God and honestly say the words uttered by the prodigal son in Luke 12, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.”  But the Father has compassion. He responds with a disorienting radical love. The Gospel is this: not only is he welcomed back into the family, but given a feast in celebration completely undeserved. Merton’s poem is a lesson in humility, where there is no room for boasting even in our failures. We are okay with just being okay, and this is a lesson I am learning and re-learning every day.

2. The Valley of Vision • Puritan Prayer by Arthur Bennett (1975)

The second song in this cycle is a Puritan prayer about finding God in the valleys and struggles of life. It has been with me since hearing it at a Bible study in California over 10 years ago. The prayer is one of paradoxes, reminding us that the spiritual journey is not a climb up a mountain but a descent as we walk the path of Christ. The early Christian hymn from Phillipians 2 says of Jesus,

“…though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him…”

But the Gospel is this: it is by humbling ourselves that we are exalted. It is our brokenness that God uses for our healing and ultimately His glory. The invitation in this prayer is to open your heart in the midst of sin and grief to God’s joy, grace, riches, and glory. 

Lord high and holy meek and lowly
Thou hast brought me to the valley of vision
Where I live in the depths
but see Thee in the heights
Hemmed in by mountains of sin
I behold thy glory

Let me learn by paradox
That the way down is the way up
  to be low is to be high
  the broken heart is the healed heart
the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit
the repenting soul is the victorious soul
to have nothing is to possess all
to bear the cross is to wear the crown
to give is to receive
that the valley is a place of vision.

Lord in the daytime
stars can be seen from deepest wells
And the deeper the wells
the brighter thy stars shine
Let me find thy light in my darkness
Thy life in my death
Thy joy in my sorrow
Thy grace in my sin
Thy riches in my poverty
Thy glory in my valley.

3. Love (III) • Text by George Herbert (1633)

If God is love, and the Gospel is grace, George Herbert’s third poem on love beautifully captures a soul’s response to first seeing God for who He truly is. It is shocking – we often wrestle with believing we are worthy of unconditional love. “If only you knew who I truly am…,” we often think to ourselves, limiting just how far Christ would go to love his children. But Herbert identifies with the shameful hesitancy of a soul receiving Christ for the first time. We don’t feel worthy, and by earthly standards, this is true. We are not perfectly kind, perfectly grateful…we are not perfect, so we do not deserve the perfect love of God. But the Gospel is this: as we place our faith in Christ, we gain his identity through his righteous life, and he bears our blame on the cross, fully identifying with our sinfulness. It’s the great exchange: Christ’s righteousness for our unrighteousness, and inspired Herbert to write these words. This poem, written in the first person, depicts Christ simply as “Love.” As you read, you can substitute the word Love for the word ‘Christ’ or ‘God’, and make this poem your own prayer.

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guiltie of dust and sinne.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack’d any thing.

A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?
My deare, then I will serve.
You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.

In the Kingdom of God, if our entrance is not earned by merit, so too our participation neither improves or reduces our status at God’s feast. We are guests, who are simply offered a seat at the table. The Gospel is this: Christ sees us, and as we turn toward him in faith, Christ forgives us, bears our blame, and invites us to feast at His table.

Herbert sums this up in his hymn, “Repentance” (1633):

But you will sin and grief destroy;
That so the broken bones may joy,
And tune together in a well-set song,
Full of His praises,
Who dead men raises.
Fractures well cured make us more strong.

Recording coming soon!

Setting a really great poem

Last Wednesday (my birthday!), a friend of mine gave a brilliant and poignant talk on the sacred poetry of George Herbert.  To call it profound and beautiful would be an understatement.  The talk focused around three poems, so we heard a small survey of his work, and (with the help of my friend) got to dig deep into some of Herbert’s enigmatic verbage and introspection.  It was an odd mix of grad students from different departments, housemates, clergy, and professors.  Coupled with decadent desserts and tea served in fine china, it was altogether an awesome way to spend my birthday.

One of the many things that stirred my soul that evening was the idea of God’s upside-down economy.  A kind of economy where one need not pay with works and good deeds to earn God’s blessings and gifts, but receives them in grace simply for being God’s son or daughter.  The story of the prodigal son was discussed, as was this passage from Isaiah:

. . .you that have no money, come, buy and eat!  Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. . .Why spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me and eat what is good, and delight yourself in rich food. –Isaiah 55:1-2

These two vignettes illustrate the fact that we are incapable of earning God’s favor, gifts, and ultimately, His love.  I won’t attempt to recreate the talk that my friend shared, and instead share one of the poems from the evening: Herbert’s “Love (III)”

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.

“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”;
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat

I got really excited when I saw this poem on the works discussed because I had sung a setting of this poem by John Tavener with my old church choir  (sorry no youtube recordings).  Though I didn’t care too much for the choral piece, I was puzzled by the poetry and was interested in the other poems of Herbert.  When my friend read the poem aloud during her talk, I realized that the words alone – without musical setting – were so much more powerful than the setting of them by Tavener.  I fell in love with the text in a way that the choral piece had never shown me.  The ambiguity of the speaker of each quotation (especially stanza 3 line 4) is troubling when we read it aloud, and I think that is Herbert’s intention.  Is “Love” telling the speaker that it will serve, or is the speaker requesting to serve “Love”?

In Taverner’s anthem, each stanza is broken into 3 sections, each with expanding vocal range and tonal complexity, starting from a simple unison for the first two lines, then dissonant 2nds and 3rds for lines 3 and 4, and concluding each stanza in a 4-part tonal style.  I think this expanding form works beautifully for the third stanza; beginning with shame, then reassurance, and the ultimately a direct command to sit and eat.  Mapping the same exact music to each verse of this poem, however, doesn’t accurately capture the meaning of each line.  In the second stanza the shame of the reader is illustrated in lines 3 and 4, for example.  Strophic text does not  necessarily call for strophic music.

Yet another setting of Love (III) is by Vaughn Williams.  I love Vaughn Williams’ tonal language, and he treats each stanza differently, complete with triumphant orchestration and unison choir.  Here’s a program note from a performance of the cycle i’m stealing from the internet:

Of the five settings, Love bade me welcome is perhaps the most enigmatic, reflecting both Herbert’s and Vaughan-Williams’ pre-occupations with the inner nature of Man.  The rapt stillness at its centre – the Act – at which point in the traditionally Edenic key of E, wordless voices intone the O Sacrum convivium, is one of the great moments in Vaughan-Williams

But is this glorious concert setting what Taverner had in mind when writing such an intimate poem as Love (III)?  does it accurately capture the inner dialogue between the speaker and the character of “Love”?  Does it adumbrate the question of who is speaking or serving? Does it have to?  I don’t mean to sound negative, but a poems value is not always elevated by the addition of music.  Many texts are brought to new light and given fresh understanding when set to music by a skilled composer, but poetry on its own can have a simple beauty that allows us to intensely focus on language.  Music can obscure or detract from its inherent beauty.  Kudos to Sir Vaughn Williams for setting them though…egads.