O Sing to Me of Heaven: Requiem for a Friend

Stephen D. O’Leary at Point Reyes National Seashore, June 13, 2011 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

My friend Stephen D. O’Leary departed this life on January 24, 2020, just days after we sang together at the California Shape Note Singing Convention. Although he had recently been diagnosed with cancer and had just begun chemo, he was feeling pretty good that weekend. He said afterward, “I plan to keep singing until I die (which I hope will not be anytime soon), and even after.” Two days later, way too soon, he was gone. Today I preached this homily at his requiem, where many of his shape note friends gathered to sing his spirit home. 

In early January, on Twelfth Night, Stephen shared on Facebook an article which had caught his attention, about the possibility of robot priests––speaking machines which could offer blessings, prayers and comfortable words on demand. And of course Stephen had questions: Would a robot priest, he asked, require that God be “unable to distinguish between the bot’s prayer and the prayer of an actual human person, or . . . only that the person being prayed for by the bot must believe that the bot is an actual conscious being…?” Thankfully, no such questions are at issue in this liturgy!  Fr. Gagan and I are not battery-operated.

But such questions were so Stephen. His passionate and curious mind was always wondering about things in the most interesting and unique way. How we will miss his questions––and so much besides.

The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a line expressing in nine words the uniqueness we all possess: What I do is me: for that I came. Stephen did Stephen as well as he could, and each of us has our own stories about why he came, and what difference he made in our lives.

A few hours before he died, he posted a poem by George Eliot about the “choir invisible / whose music is the gladness of the world.” The “choir invisible” is the poet’s name for those departed souls whose lingering influence has made us better, and even now may still “Enkindle generous ardor, feed pure love, / Beget the smiles that have no cruelty, / Be the sweet presence of a good diffus’d, / And in diffusion ever more intense!”

“To make [such] undying music in the world” was the holy work to which Stephen aspired, even when his road was rough and steep.  We mourn his absence, lament the sudden withdrawal from the visible world of such a remarkable and dear companion. As we sing at the end of every shape note convention, just before we go our separate ways:

Your comp’ny’s sweet, your union dear
Your words delightful to my ear
Yet when I see that we must part
You draw like cords around my heart

But the absence of a loved one in bodily and temporal form is succeeded by new forms of presence. Although death changes the relationship, it does not end it. The dead continue to occupy our thoughts. They remain present to us in stories, memories, emotions, DNA (in some cases), and whatever else they left us with.

Stephen is no longer in one particular place. He is now in every place or occasion where we remember him. He is present whenever we think of him, or speak of him, or tell the stories that bring him back. I’m pretty sure I’m always going to hear his unmistakable voice whenever we hit those high notes in shape note hymns like Stratfield or Villulia.

At the tomb of Jesus, the angel of resurrection told the sorrowing women, “The one you seek is not where you laid him. From now on, you need to be looking elsewhere.” Wendell Berry has said something similar about all the departed, who now are “hidden among all that is, / And cannot be lost.”

Resurrection faith tells us that a person’s continuing presence is not purely the product of our own subjectivity. Though we see Stephen no longer, he continues to exist as more than just memory or feeling or imagination. As he was when he was created, so he remains: a beloved child of God, but now embraced and glorified within a larger wholeness from which none of us will ever be separated. This wholeness, which has many names, is the Love Supreme which binds us all together. This interconnection, this communion, cannot be broken, even by death.

The Lakota people have the expression “all my relatives” to describe the continuing bond between the living and the dead. Martin Brokenleg, a Lakota Episcopal priest, puts it this way: “Our experience shows us that death does not break our kinship bond. We turn to one another for help and support regardless of which side of death our relatives are on.”

But knowing that death is not the end does not make the burden of loss any lighter. Even Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus died.

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” This is the only time Jesus is criticized by his friends, so bitter is their grief. Lord, if you had only come sooner, you could have delayed his fate, his mortality, for a little while longer. You could have cured him. Why did he have to die now?

Well, Jesus doesn’t like death any more than Mary and Martha do. When he approaches the tomb of his friend, he is, the gospel tells us, “greatly disturbed.” In Greek these words carry a connotation of anger, so we might say that Jesus was just as mad at death as everyone else was that day.

And so, we are told, the One who would be revealed as the Lord of life rebukes death in the most dramatic way. He peers into the darkness of the cave tomb and cries, “Lazarus! Come forth!” And Lazarus does come forth, into the light, a living man, inhaling the freshness of a spring morning.

But his resuscitation is only a temporary stay. Lazarus will die again, sooner or later. And shortly after this miracle, Jesus himself will die, sharing the fate of every mortal so that God might transform that fate into something glorious. As we sing in The Sacred Harp (#163 on the bottom): Thence he arose, ascended high, to show our feet the way.

The raising of Lazarus may not have been a true resurrection into life eternal, but it was a vivid foretaste of the human future, when everyone who has fallen asleep in death will hear the voice of the divine Friend who knows us by heart, calling us each by name on that “great rising day.”

Some of us were at Angels Gate in San Pedro for the California Shape Note Convention, when Stephen, only a few days before his death, led us in singing “Farewell Anthem.”

My friends, I am going on a long and tedious journey,
Never to return, never to return. . .
Fare you well,
Fare you well, my friends,
And God grant we may meet together in that world above. . .

Stephen was not being literal––he did not expect to leave us so soon––but I imagine him smiling now to know he was bound for  glory with a song on his lips, and that so many who love him have gathered here today to join in that song with sweet accord.

I once heard a shape note singer tell about her mother’s death out in Sand Mountain, Alabama. A lot of singers were standing round her bed, keeping vigil with the old songs. But there came a moment when her mother began to sing a tune that none of them recognized. They couldn’t quite place it. And then they realized she wasn’t singing the melody. She was singing the treble part. She was singing harmony with voices from the other side, which only she could hear. The choir invisible.

Oh, sing to me of heav’n,
When I am called to die,
Sing songs of holy ecstasy
To waft my soul on high. . .

 

Then to my ravished ear
Let one sweet song begin,
Let music charm me last on earth,
And greet me first in heav’n.

 

Stephen O’Leary (right) and David Olson lead “Farewell Anthem” at the 2020 California Shape Note Convention.

Late summer days and the shadows of impermanence

Nelson Cruz

Nelson Cruz

It was supposed to be the Mariners’ year in major league baseball. With a few weeks still left in the regular season, Seattle’s star pitcher has 17 wins, and their best batter has hit 40 home runs. These are great numbers. But the team itself has been out of the pennant race since July. For a long time, the Mariners just couldn’t score when they needed to, lost a lot of close games, and are currently 7 games out of first place, and 6 games below .500. With only 20 games left, their chances of making the playoffs are virtually nil.

So has their season lost all its meaning? Was it all for nothing? If a season is worthwhile only if you win the championship, then only one team can ever stave off meaninglessness. But as basketball legend Bill Russell has noted, in sports “the basic unit of time is the moment. Sports fans and players appreciate each instant.”[i] We enjoy the evening highlights on ESPN even if we don’t follow a particular team, even if our own team is having a bad year, because we are witnessing the timeless essence of the sport: a great pitch, the crack of the bat, a stolen base, a diving catch.

Sportswriter Meg Rowley, in an artful post called “How I learned to stop worrying and love Nelson Cruz,” reminds us that every game, every team, has moments of pure skill and beauty with a value unto themselves, regardless of their relevance to the overall standings. We watch the games even if they don’t “matter” in the long run, because we love those moments.

I once saw Sandy Koufax strike out 18 Giants. I remember cheering and laughing with my dad from a bleacher seat high above right field. I remember Wally Moon blasting a 3-run homer to win the game in the bottom of the ninth. But I didn’t remember, until I looked it up, was the year it happened, or the fact that this dramatic win helped the Dodgers go on to win the World Series. Seasons come and go, fortunes rise and fall, but the special moments endure.

Citing the Mariners’ Nelson Cruz (40 home runs) and the Detroit Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera, who is hitting .351 and will probably win the batting title for a team that is 19 games out of first place, Rowley says that “every season is really about appreciating great performances in the face of eventual failure.” Every team but one will fail in the end. And even the winner is unlikely to repeat next season. “It’s all futile. But guys like Cruz and Cabrera make that futility beautiful … for a couple of at-bats every game, Cruz and Cabrera keep the futility at bay.”[ii]

As I savor the luscious local weather of late summer in Puget Sound, I am also conscious of its imminent departure. No matter how many perfect moments have adorned these summer months, no one gets a winning season in the game with time. The day will come when night falls early, the birds have gone, and it’s too cold to sit outside in the garden with a book.

Emily Dickinson, who loved the “sacrament of summer days,” was haunted by the shadow of impermanence that falls across our sunlit lawns. The times when we forget that shadow, like the brief return of balmy weather in Indian summer, are but a “fraud that cannot cheat the Bee.”[iii] Yet Dickinson’s poetry, in its act of acute noticing, in its cherishing of the beauty which is all the more precious for its brevity, keeps the futility at bay. She could not solve the puzzle of where it was all headed, this ephemeral life. She wasn’t sure whether the future would turn out to be consummation or cessation (to borrow John Dewey’s evocative duality). Despite her inheritance of Christian vocabulary, she was steeped in nineteenth century doubt. But she always stepped to the plate and took her swings, and her readers still share the pleasure of her every at-bat.

I am currently reading Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, her moving memoir of the generation who came of age on the eve of the First World War. Her descriptions of “carefree summers” before the war are especially poignant because both writer and reader know what is about to happen. When, in 1915, she received news about the death of one of her ‘summer friends’ – the kind of people “with whom one dances and plays games and perhaps flirts a little,” she wrote to her fiancé serving on the front that “it gives one the shock of incongruity to imagine the Angel of Death brooding over one’s light and pleasant acquaintances, and to think of them with all their lightness and pleasantries shed away.”[iv]

The dream of summer as a timeless sabbath from mortality soon vanished in the trenches, and with it many of Brittain’s generation, including her brother and her lover. But did the shortness of those young and precious lives invalidate whatever love and meaning and joy they did experience, however briefly?

Like Emily Dickinson, Gustav Mahler confronted the shadow of impermanence in all of his work. He said specifically of his Second Symphony (“Resurrection”) that he was asking the big questions: “What did you live for? Why did you suffer? Is it all only a vast terrifying joke?”[v] With the vast orchestral intensity for which he was famous, Mahler takes the listener through a sonic storm of anguish and despair, hope and fear, apocalypse and catharsis, until the extraordinary moment when the chorus refutes the turmoil with the astonishing serenity, verging on silence, of its glorious invitation: Rise again.

I first heard the Resurrection Symphony from the third row of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Zubin Mehta conducted, and Jessye Norman led the singers in the exultant affirmation of the finale, as voices, strings, brass and percussion carried us in a gigantic wave of sound across the abyss of loss into the transcendent:

Arise, yes, you will arise from the dead,
my heart, in an instant!
What you have overcome
will carry you to God.

In Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, when a fictional composer describes the final passage of his valedictory work, he captures something of what I experienced that night at the end of Mahler’s Resurrection:

It would be the hope beyond hopelessness, the transcendence of despair … Hear the close, listen to it with me! One group of instruments after the other drops out, and what remains, with which the work dies away, is the high g of a cello, the last word, and the last suspended sound, in a pianissima fermata, slowly fading. Then there is nothing more. Silence and night. But the note that continues to hang and pulsate in the silence, the note that is no more, for which only the soul listens, and which was once the expression of sorrow, is no longer that but changes its meaning, and endures like a light in the darkness.[vi]

In the emotionally charged silence which followed the Philharmonic’s inspired performance, no one dared clap or even whisper. Mehta kept his arms high and extended, seemingly frozen in his final gesture, for a very long thirty seconds, forbidding us to drown out “the note that is no more” with the harshness of applause. Norman’s eyes welled up. Some of the orchestra wiped away tears. It was the closest I’ve come to eternity.

At last, very slowly, Mehta lowered his arms. When they finally reached his side, his shoulders relaxed, and we were all released back into time. We rose to our feet and thundered our joy. Yes, that sublime moment had kept futility at bay. More than that, it had carried us to God.

[i] Bill Russell, Second Wind, quoted in Lapham’s Quarterly: Time, Vol. vii, No. 4, Fall 2014, p. 118

[ii] Posted at http://www.foxsports.com/mlb/just-a-bit-outside/story/good-players-bad-teams-nelson-cruz-seattle-mariners-micuel-cabrera-detroit-tigers-090915

[iii] The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1960), #130, p. 61

[iv] Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth: An Autobiographical Study of the Years 1900-1925 (New York: Penguin Group, 2004), 158

[v] q. in Philip Kitcher, Deaths in Venice: The Cases of Gustav von Aschenbach (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 141

[vi] ibid., 178

Behind the veil

When you arrive in Santiago de Compostela, they say, then your real Camino begins. Or continues, since the vast traverse between where we’ve been and where we’re headed is ongoing, never finally completed – not even by death, say the theologians. We are always “on the way,” deeper and deeper into the mystery of the world. Just so, this blog will itself travel on, exploring the permutations of that mystery within the wide categories of God, Nature, and Art, which are my three great passions. The subjects will be diverse, but all will pursue my guiding theme: where the fire and the rose are one.

This richly suggestive phrase, the last line of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, harmonizes seemingly incompatible energies: the wild, consuming flame, the serene, soft and self-possessed bloom. As traditional symbols of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, they recall the fruitful incongruity of the Incarnation, but even without this theological overlay, on a strictly sensory level, their union comprises a highly charged coincidence of opposites. The interplay of radically different entities – matter and spirit, sensation and meaning, fact and imagination – and the expanded sense of reality that such unlikely dance partners can produce, will be the subject of my inquiry. John Muir, rhapsodic apostle of the California mountains, described nature as “opening a thousand windows to show us God.” The Religious Imagineer exists to look for those windows – not only in nature, but also in the arts, literature, cinema, theology, and ritual practice. The terrain is immense, my maps are few. But like Wordsworth, I pray that “should the guide I choose / Be nothing better than a wandering cloud / I cannot miss my way.”

So let me begin my new “camino” with Bill Viola, whose video art installations explore big questions: Who am I? Where am I? Where am I going? I have admired his work for years, and was delighted that the first retrospective of his work in France coincided with my arrival in Paris en route to the Camino in April. The notes to the exhibition related his aesthetic to religious contemplation: “For the artist, the camera is that second eye that ‘re-teaches us how to see’ and addresses the world beyond, or beneath, appearances.” And in fact the multiple rooms of the gallery, cave-like spaces lit only by the high-definition images projected on large surfaces, seemed more church than museum. People stood or sat on the floor in rapt attention to the visions unfolding all around them.

I was struck by one room in particular, where the four walls were covered by simultaneous projections of five different 35 minute scenes of mortality and resurrection. One of these was a fixed wide shot of a man dying in a tiny house perched on a bluff (a cutaway wall lets us see inside) as a boat is loaded with household goods on the beach below. When the man dies, we see him appear on the beach (while his lifeless body remains in the house) and get into the boat, which ferries him slowly across the wide expanse of water toward an unknown shore. In another scene, a rescue crew is packing up at the edge of receding floodwaters, while a distraught mother keeps watch in the desperate hope that her drowned son might still be rescued. After a long vigil, mother and paramedics, exhausted, fall asleep on the shore. It is only then that the son’s resurrected body rises out of the water and into the sky beyond the frame. The sleepers miss it, but the viewer is given a privileged glimpse of the crossing between this world and the next. Water dripping from the man’s ascending feet turns into a downpour once he is out of sight. The sleepers are awakened by the deluge, and they exit the scene, never suspecting the rain to be a sign connecting earth and heaven. The mystery of resurrection remains hidden from them, though not from us. The largest image, covering the entirety of a long wall, was an endless procession of people, seen from the side like a Parthenon frieze, moves in slow single file through a forest. As Viola intended, these walkers, wrapped in a silence that seems neither anxious nor eager, suggest souls who have left this world, on their way to whatever world awaits them. I would recall this image a few days later, when I took my own place in the Camino’s great procession of pilgrims, all making our way toward God knows where.

It would be hard to imagine a casual encounter with this installation, whose title was Going Forth By Day (a term for dying taken from the Egyptian Book of the Dead). It seemed too concerned about our own fate for us to pass it by with only a glance. Viola’s work always invites us deeper, soliciting, in his words, “faith in that other thing, that something else dimly felt behind the veil of daily life.” (David Morgan, “Spirit and Medium,” in The Art of Bill Viola, p. 101)

We could use more of such conviction – and poetic persuasiveness – in the rites and imagery of our churches, which sometimes seem at a loss in the task of making the sacred tangible or even thinkable in a culture saturated by secular assumptions. I was delighted to hear that St. Paul’s cathedral in London recently unveiled a permanent Viola video installation in its Martyrs chapel. You can find images of this new work at http://www.billviola.com/

You can view a short montage of excerpts from Going Forth by Day here: http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=Bill+Viola+Going+forth+by+day&FORM=VIRE1#view=detail&mid=38964FC4118E53E2F6B938964FC4118E53E2F6B9

You can also watch an excellent lecture which I heard Viola give at UC Berkeley in 2010. It is 90 minutes long, includes examples of his work, and is well worth it for his discussion of “technology and revelation.” The link is at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t0RCkNugozU

Viola flood res

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christ is risen!

Holy Saturday began, like the previous two days of the Triduum, starting in the dark to walk by the light of Paschal moon and breaking dawn. Those early hours, the matins and lauds of newborn day, will surely remain among the sweetest of the Camino. After woods of oak and pine, sleeping villages in peaceful valleys, and the World Heritage site of the oldest discovered human remains (900,000 years ago), I pressed on into the urban sprawl of Burgos, determined to make the Easter Vigil at the great cathedral.

I knew it would not resemble the creative Vigils I have curated in the States. There would be no storytelling, theater, dance or musical eclecticism. But I was not prepared for the total absence of either mystery or joy. The solemn darkness at the beginning was shattered by the constant flashing of cameras, and the house lights were turned up full before the Exultet was sung, thus negating the holy glow of our candles. Fourteen scowling men in chasubles up front was a poor icon of Easter joy. And if your eye wandered upward to the spectacular golden retablo behind them, you were treated to St. James the Moor Slayer on his horse trampling a couple of Muslims (dressed in colorful costumes like dancers in “The Nutcracker,” so the effect was rather cheerful). Perhaps worst of all, never once did we get to shout “Christ is risen!”

I returned despondent to my tiny, cold, windowless hotel room after midnight. In the first hour of Easter morning, it felt like returning to the tomb. I didn’t go out again until noon. It was raining. The streets of the old city seemed dead. I sang “Welcome, Happy Morning” under my breath, more out of habit than conviction.

I happened to pass by the church of San Nicolas, whose splendid stone retablo was on my must-see list. So I ducked in out of the rain. And there, to my utter surprise, was the risen Christ, returning to the doubting and the sad just as he promised.

It was the end of mass. The priest pronounced the blessing, and then began the most extraordinary outpouring of Easter joy. For the next 45 minutes, children and youth in traditional costumes did festive folk dances to the sound of reeds and drum, Easter songs, and the continuous ringing of small hand bells. Sometimes they danced near the altar, sometimes they danced in procession around the aisles with priest and choir. Here was resurrection indeed:
“I am the dance and I still go on!” All the rest of us joined in hearty singing of the hymns and Alleluias, punctuated by loud shouts of “Viva!” Tears streamed down my face. O beauty so ancient and so new!

And so, as Scripture says, “Surely God’s mercies are not over; God’s kindnesses are never exhausted. They are renewed every morning.” When the celebration concluded, the priest walked among the people with a basket of sweet cookies. As he offered one to me, I received it with recognition:

“Take and eat – I am with you always.”