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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Children's Chapel:  10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
 

Without a Song

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, February 13, 2005


This past summer, while Elizabeth and I were nearing the end of our first full day in France, we were sitting at dinner in a lovely hotel dining room in the small town of Corps, about 40 miles south of Grenoble, just on the edge of the French Alps. We had returned a short time before from a sometimes harrowing, always exhilarating, thoroughly rewarding excursion over about ten miles of arduous mountain roads to the shrine of Our Lady of LaSalette, which sits perched on a mountainside about 6000 feet above Corps.

Now, having survived the drive up (and down) the mountain, it was time for dinner. Up on the mountain, we had heard good things about this restaurant in the village, at the Hotel de la Poste, and were not disappointed. For more than two hours, we had luxuriated in the bounty of French cuisine: there had been escargots, and champignons, and confit de cunard, and rich chocolate desserts, and fine local cheeses. (You have to give the French credit: they got the “weapons of mass destruction” thing right, and they get food right, too.) Now, it was almost time to go, and as Elizabeth paid a visit to the powder room, and I waited for our check over coffee, I happened to notice the music that was playing softly over the restaurant’s speakers: it was Bruce Springsteen, of course. He was singing “Streets of Philadelphia”, and I thought to myself how cool it was to be sitting here in a small village, in this isolated corner of France, hearing my hero, Springsteen, coming over the speakers singing a song about Philadelphia, back in the States. Not his most romantic song, I thought, but I’d take it.

Then, as Elizabeth rejoined me, I called her attention to the music, and we smiled, and shared a little laugh as Bruce finished up “Streets of Philadelphia”. Then there was a brief pause, and the next song came on, and in a few moments, we were both in tears.
\Because the next song, you see, was “our song” (or, at least, the most recent incarnation of “our” song). It was Bruce again, this time singing “If I Should Fall Behind”—a song we both love, and which we have come to see as a symbol for us, of our marriage, and our love, and our common journey:

We swore we’d travel… side by side
We’d help each other stay in stride
But each lover’s steps fall so differently
But I’ll wait for you
If I should fall behind
Wait for me.

It was an absolutely perfect moment, one that could not have been scripted better: Here we were, on this trip of a lifetime we had talked about taking for over twenty years; indeed, here we were, celebrating the jubilee year of our common journey of twenty-five years; now, there was Bruce, singing about faith and fidelity and love and loyalty.

It was one of those moments when we could, indeed, glimpse that we were part of some great cosmic plan. And, as is so often the case in these lives of ours, we had a song to help us mark the moment.

Without a song the day would never end,
Without a song the road could never bend,
Without a song a man ain’t got a friend,
Without a song.

“Without music, life would be a mistake,” the philosopher Nietzsche once said. Against the Calvinists who had banned almost all music from their church services, in his typical laid-back manner, Martin Luther railed: “A person who does not regard music as a marvelous creation of God must be a clodhopper indeed and does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs.” The poet May Sarton once said: “There are days when only religious music will do. Under the light of eternity, things, the daily trivia, the daily frustrations, fall away. It’s all a matter of getting to the center of the beam.”

Orlando di Lasso is considered by many to have been one of the most important Renaissance composers of the 16th century. Over 2000 of his spiritual and secular works have survived, of which one of his best known “Musica dei donum”, tells of his celebration of music:

“Music, the gift of God, draws men, draws gods;
Music makes savage souls gentle and uplifts sad minds.
Music moves the very trees and wild beasts.”

Music draws out our deeper connection with all existence. It moves more nimbly and effectively than mere words ever could, into the deeper recesses of our beings. Unlike words or thoughts alone, music touches our souls directly; it engages our emotions (even our bodies), as well as our intellects. As Scott Alexander has said, “[Music] is often the best and most effective way… to touch the deep and tender places in the human spirit.” He continues: “Music has an uncanny (and wondrous) way of bypassing many of our rational and psychological defenses and going right to our hearts (with what is at the heart of the matter).”

For some of us who spend so much time in our heads, and whose rational and psychological defenses are often pitched so high, music can be one of our primary means of emotional release and spiritual growth. There are certain songs which will move me time and again, in almost the exact same way, every time I hear them. As I’ve said before, listening to some of Springsteen’s work is a transcendent, religious experience for me. (You’ve probably got your own composers and artists who speak to you just as directly.) When I listen to Paul Robeson sing “Ballad for Americans” or “The House I Live In” (indeed, when I listen to Paul Robeson sing almost anything), my soul is stirred, and I am placed back in the presence of my deepest values.

We went to see The Sound of Music at Wheelock College yesterday (an excellent production; if you have the chance—Go!). I’ll tell you that the music of Rogers and Hammerstein may not be high brow; it may be kind of schmaltzy, and overly-sentimental, and all that—but it is transcendent, and it is moving, and it makes you feel more alive. When the Mother Superior sang “Climb Every Mountain” at the end of Act One, I wept. When the nuns sang it at the end of Act Two, as the Trapp family is making its way to freedom, I wept again. And I am not an especially weepy kind of guy. But I get goose bumps still just thinking about it. Music makes us feel more alive, and certain songs connect us with our deeper values in a way that words alone cannot.

I grew up in a very unremarkable working class family in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, and as thankful as I am for the opportunities I have been afforded in life, I am not one to romanticize my childhood. We were a family that had its share of challenges and blessings. We were, like all our families, blessed in certain ways and probably lacking in others. Nor were we especially musical (none of us played musical instruments, for example).

But there always seemed to be music in the air. There were my father’s recordings of Mario Lanza, which he played all the time; there were my mother’s records of the old Southern hymns on which she’d been raised; there were my brother’s Beatles records. Then, later, my own LPs—against which my father would often rant and rave—Springsteen (of course), and Jackson Browne, and the Eagles and Kansas and Deep Purple. All this music was the “soundtrack of our lives”, as Cameron Crowe has called it. It was the background music to the daily lives we led, which got us through the day, and connected us with that “something more” for which we all yearn.

Not only was there always music playing, but there always seemed to be someone singing along. My father would sing along with Mario Lanza (and sounded a good bit like him, too; my father had a rather nice voice, actually). My mother (bless her heart) doesn’t have a very good voice—but she sang along with Tennessee Ernie Ford and Tex Ritter, anyway. And I, also not blessed with a great voice, sang along with my favorites, too—belting them out at full voice, and I still do.

“I have had singing,” and so my life has been blest. I sing. I sing in the shower (everyone sounds like Mario Lanza in the shower!) I sing in the car. I sing at my desk while I’m working. I sing in the grocery store. I always have. I’ve never thought anything about it.

Now, not everyone does this, I have come to learn.

One day at Stop & Shop, I was cruising the aisles, figuring out what to buy for supper, singing something (I can’t remember what song it was). Another shopper (a little woman dressed in black), coming up the aisle in the opposite direction, stopped in front of my cart, stared straight at me, and asked (not in a very pleasant tone): “Why are you singing? Are you really that happy?”

I really don’t remember what my reply to her was, but the answer really is: I’m probably no happier than most people, I suppose. But when I sing, I know that I’m alive. And that I’m not alone.

After his wife, Linda, died, Paul McCartney decided to commission a recording called A Garland for Linda, a recording project to raise money for cancer research. He asked the best composers in England to contribute works, and he himself wrote “Nova”, a song in which he asks:

“Are you there, God? God, where are you?”

And the answer comes:

“I am here in every song you sing.”

Through music, we are one with the lives of others. We are one with all creation. And we are no longer alone in the universe.

The late composer Aaron Copeland once asked himself the question:

“The whole problem can be stated quite simply by asking,
‘Is there a meaning to music?’
My answer to that would be: ‘Yes.’
And ‘Can you state in so many words what the meaning is?”
My answer to that would be: ‘No.’

Music is part and parcel of the holy and profound mystery which is life. We don’t know from where it comes, and why it comes, and why it touches us as deeply as it does. We each apprehend this miracle of music in a particular and unique way. In a deep and abiding way, we each have our own particular song to sing—that particular song which gives each of our lives its meaning and purpose.

We catch but echoes of that greater song—fragments; a few bars here; a few notes there—in the particular songs which life presents to us.

Dum siero, spero, the old Latin saying reminds us: “While I breathe, I hope.”

And while we breathe, we sing.

Our song is the breath of life, taken deep inside each of us, mixed with the full range of all our emotions, and thoughts, and expectations, and hopes, and fears—with the full range of our history, and who we are. Then, in our song, we pour this breath forth again upon all creation; and our lives are joined again, in our singing, with the Spirit—the breath—of all Creation.

Music is a holy gift of God.

The song we sing is our gift back to the Creator, and the Creation, and to one another.

As Richard Gilbert has written:

Let There Be Music
In a world of discord let there be music in our lives.
To be sure, we know the world is full of disharmony -
Cacophony is everywhere;
The rhythms of living are ragged;
The melody of life often hits sharps and flats
When we least expect them;
Tunes are often left unsung;
Fragments of notes fly hither and yon.
Composing a life is hard work.
Still, let there be music in our lives -
The music of the celestial spheres in the dark of night
When all about us is still;
The music of the seasons, their silent changing;
The music of voices lifted in song and laughter,
As well as in pathos and pity;
The music of the spoken word melodically presented,
Of the written word upon the page, the poetry of life.
Let there be music in our lives
Intruding upon our tired spirits, uplifting the weary soul
Letting us know our lives are yet songs to be sung.

Our music may give us no final answers to the great questions of life:

I’ll never know what makes the leaves to fall,
I’ll never know what makes the grass so tall.
I only know there ain’t no love at all,
Without a song.

As Maria says to Liesl in The Sound of Music:

A bell is no bell till you ring it.
A song is no song till you sing it.
And love in your heart wasn’t put there to stay.
Love isn’t love, till you give it away.

And life isn’t life until we share these songs of our lives with one another.

 


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