“How Can We Keep from Singing” – Sermon Text
“How Can We Keep from Singing”
A Sermon by Rev. Charles Blustein Ortman
A young mother huddles close to the fire,
her infant suckling at her breast.
Far off, somewhere beyond the entrance to her cave,
she hears a mournful cry.
It is the lonely song of the wolf that the woman knows
has been watching her for the past many nights.
The wolf howls in search of, in a prayer for, finding its mate.
The woman wonders about her own mate.
She has not seen her lover now for several days.
She holds her child closer, warmly, gently.
She hums a poignant, melancholy lullaby,
rocking back and forth on her haunches she hums. Hmmm….
[Humming a few bars of lullaby]
Light years away in a hide-housed village
a community gathers around a tribal fire.
Drummers forge a rhythm struck
upon dried, drawn skins with a mallet.
Though they may not know it,
the drum and mallet resemble
the very organ of their own hearing.
Within the striking rhythm
the people create and re-create
a model of their own lives:
the universal drum, encompassing all that is,
the striking mallet seeking its identity within that all.
Dancers receive the beat,
through their ears and through their feet.
They feel the rhythm
in its moving, mystic dance complete.
Up and down each spine,
a chord does bind… heart and soul in rhythm.
The singers of the tribe
(and all in turn, take their turn in singing)
the singers give voice to the bridge,
that connects mallet with drum,
that connects the spirit of each
within the soulful wholeness of all
that guides the stars in their galactic orbit,
that bursts the germ of the seed in the husk.
The singers give voice to the bridge
that connects their joys and longings
with the beauties and the abrasions
of a world made real,
made ever more real,
as the mallet strikes the drum.
They sing: [Chanting]
Hey, Hey Wa Ta Ney
Hey, Hey Wa Ta Ney
Hey, Hey Wa Ta Ney
Kay Oh Kay Nah
Kay Oh Kay Nah
And yet still much further out, in time and in space…
It was mid-December; the late afternoon was warm,
but not unseasonably so.
Try as it might, the low-angled sunlight
Could not quite make its way up into the pillared promenade
that lined the Galleria, in front of the shops, across the piazza
from the Duomo of St. Augustine, patron saint of Milan.
The Milanese people meandered in all directions,
Some passing in and out of the shops.
Some Criss-crossing the Piaza,
Some passing in and out of the Duomo,
which with its Baptistery and Tower,
is the great cathedral, there in Milan.
We took the opportunity
to wander in, to take for a look ourselves.
The cathedrals of Italy, you may already know,
are themselves rather incredible museums altogether.
This one, no exception.
A grand work of art itself.
It is filled with countless smaller,
but no less magnificent, pieces.
We wandered in, stopping along the way
at several of the side altars,
slowly heading up toward the apse, center front.
When we got to that area, we noticed,
off to the side…
there was a door,
and it had been left quite open.
We couldn’t really see where it led.
But there it was,
and there we were,
and there was no one telling us
not to go through it.
So, of course, we did.
We found ourselves then in a dimly lit hallway
that led through a number of other smaller rooms,
some filled with paintings, some statuary.
Some of the rooms were small chapels
that had probably seen countless christenings, and
weddings, and funerals
over the centuries.
We continued along
and eventually came to a staircase.
Still, there was no one suggesting or telling us
that we should not go down those stairs.
Accepting their tacit invitation then,
we began to descend. Down went the stairs
through basements and cellars,
through undercrofts and crypts. Down they went
through stone, and earth… and time.
After a while, we began to hear voices,
in the distance,
from far off we could hear voices faintly singing.
[Humming Kyrie begins very softly.]
We followed the sound,
down further through the darkness until
we finally reached the bottom of all those stairs.
A stone floor then led us on along stone walls.
The chanting voices grew louder and stronger, as we went.
[Continuing with growing volume of chanting]
The light in the cavern grew incrementally brighter.
Sparsely spaced gleaming torches,
cleaved to the walls in ancient iron brackets,
now lit our way.
As we drew nearer the source of the singing,
We crept quietly, holding our breaths.
Turning a final bend, we found ourselves
on the edge of a majestic, torch-lit chamber.
We stood now in the shadows of an ancient catacomb—
earth hewn, high domed, subterranean cathedral—
that lay deep below the public one so high above.
Illuminated faces of the brown-robed monks
shined intermittently in the flickering light
of candles and sconces.
Ageless, radiant voices filled the subterranean air
with Gregorian melody, and energy and beauty.
If the monks noticed us at all,
they did not let on. And so,
we stood there,
very still, in awe and appreciation,
listening to the beckoning chant
of an evening vespers service.
“Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison. Kyrie eleison.”
“Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.”
[Chanting grows louder and then ease off a bit]
They sang in unison, in agreement.
They sang in community,
and in ritual tradition.
They sang from their hearts
because it was in their hearts to sing.
[Softer chanting still]
I have no recollection of ever leaving that chamber.
I do remember standing still for a very long time.
I remember the flickering torchlight,
the robes, the uplifted faces,
those angelic voices singing
some of the most beautiful music
I’ve ever heard in my life.
I remember being held – in that moment –
by a force that had brought me to that place
and held me there, enfolding me in that experience.
I don’t remember ever leaving.
Perhaps a part of me is still there, even now.
Perhaps in some way, we are all partially there together, now.
Longing for love,
Longing, we sing.
Longing for a sense of completion,
for a part in the harmony,
for enough to survive,
for enough to share…
Longing, we sing.
Giving thanks for boundless beauty,
For exaltation in awe,
For inhalation with wonder…
Giving thanks, we sing.
Giving thanks for one another,
For the gift of life,
For the trials where we have triumphed,
for the goals we have attained…
Giving thanks, we sing.
In our celebrations and ceremonies, transitions are observed. Pasts are reconciled, and futures are hoped. Words are exchanged to engage our thoughts on the occasion of our gatherings. But even more, music is played, and songs are sung, inviting our spirits into the soulful expression of our deepest attentions. How then? How can we keep from singing?
From time immemorial, the elements of worship, both private and public, have included song. It is as though the soul itself has been given voice through song. It is as though the beauty of the universe transcends the experience of each soul through its expression in song.
The young mother in the cave harmonizes the strains of her hardships with those of the distant longings of her sister wolf. She offers, as gifts, the longings of her soul, her loneliness, her fears, transcended, made into a gift through the creation of song. In turn, the song gives back to her. It provides the woman and her child with some real sense, some real experience of comfort.
The tribal community gathers for festival on the eve of its annual planting. The people gratefully recognize the heavenly bodies in their rotation and in their relation to the cycles of growing. The community gratefully remembering harvests of the past. And in their song, the people’s spirit reaches out with a blessing to the spirit of the seed that will soon be planted. That it, that they, might once again flourish; that it, that they, might again be nourished; that again the people might be sustained. And in their singing, they are sustained until that fruit comes home.
The monks in the subterranean tabernacle establish, once again, their link between the divine and humankind. They have recognized that the word is indeed made flesh. And in that flesh made word, that flesh sung word, the human and the divine meet, deep within their holy ground.
I once heard a poet say that humans experience happiness in ones, as a unique occurrence. Each experience of happiness standing out on the frontier, alone and independent of all other experience.
Yet, each occurrence of sadness, he said, mounts in a cumulative, summary fashion. Each sadness joining in with every other personal loss in our history.
Possibly, in some ways this is true. I thought it was a rather sad poem, a rather sad assessment of our human condition. And then I recognized that perhaps the poet must be without a song in his heart.
Maybe the soul’s memory of sadness is a persistent one. But when sadness is sung, though not forgotten, it is sadness shared. It is the soul lifted from cold and despair, the soul wrapped and warmed in the comfort of common humanity, in a stole of shared divinity.
If suffering is the badge of human experience, as Mahatma Gandhi said, if suffering is the mark of our humanity, then singing is the polishing of that emblem. Singing is at least the temporary ownership of that experience, allowing it to return from whence it came. Return to a universe which holds within it all possibilities.
In singing, having raised our voices, we raise ourselves from chaos to art, from isolation to sweet communion.
Perhaps, like a “dream deferred,” happiness, unsung, glimmers only briefly at the forefront of our experience. Unsung, happiness flickers brightly, but for just a moment. Then, if left unabetted, it wanes and is quenched by incessant waves of daily rigor, by the mundane demands that erode the ground of our bliss. Happiness left unsung is left to stand alone, independent of other experience.
But were that poet to sing his verse of bliss… were he to raise his voice in melodic resonation… were he to free his spirit on a note of quivering celebration, his spirit might surely take legion within this great harmonic cosmos, which is our home. His spirit might well find its place among a symphony of universal joy, of universal beauty.
Happiness need not stand alone when it is seen as a gift, and not as a fluke. Happiness need not stand alone when, as a gift, it is returned, having been given back with our own unique signature… our signature which is… our own mallet upon the universal drum.
There is an issue to acknowledge as we continue with this musical metaphor of invitation to soulful expression. I imagine that some of you are sitting in your seats, saying to yourselves, “I can’t make music and I can’t sing. I don’t have a musical bone in my body! Invitation to soulful expression, bah! Left in the cold, again!”
If we agree on anything in our UU congregations, and I find much upon which we do agree, one agreement is that there is no one way to articulate or even to imagine the divine, the great mystery, and our relationship within it. Our individual task as people, and our shared task in religious community, is to explore possible expression, possible metaphors, that might expand our understanding of, and our experience in, that awesome relationship.
Our task is ever to explore; to critically reflect upon that exploration, in order to learn some approximation of truth. And then to go on, to further and fuller exploration, discovery and living. Metaphor allows us entry into that neighborhood of truth – there is not only one way into it, but many. Song is most surely one of them.
As we explore metaphors which bring us closer to home, we find avenues of greater and lesser accessibility. The more a metaphor fits our lives, the more it can be a part of our thinking. The more a metaphor is a part of our actions, all the more it can serve our aspirations.
We are served by metaphor through recognition of it and participation in it. It gives us what we have of any integration of the personal with the universal, of the personal with the divine. The metaphor of song has met these criteria from time immemorial. Song is often the first and last element of worship. From infancy to death, it is perhaps the first and last experience of soulful human expression.
As we look around, here in this sanctuary, we might recognize that we did not come here to sing our songs alone. There are other times in our life for that important task. Like the psalmists though, we too, have come together to make a joyful noise, together on this our feast day, our Sunday. We have come to harmonize together.
Joy is a counterpoint to pain. Hope rests as an interval to melancholy. Faith is the augmentation of hope. Connection diminishes isolation. We each add our part and together sound the symphony which is ever the lasting music of religious community.
It may be folk or jazz or scat. It may be blues or ballad, spiritual or ode. It might be classical or pop or just simple humming. But, how? How can we keep from singing?
When our hearts have been broken… when our dreams have been paralyzed in fear… when the world has let us down and there are so many broken pieces that it seems they will never go back together again… when loneliness knocks on our door… how can we, how can we keep from singing?
And when our hearts are filled with hope, and the rising or the setting sun touches deep within us, an inner chord of beauty… when our tables are full and our houses are dry and safe and comfortable… when our love is returned and we know the universe to be our infinite, intimate home… when awe and wonder fill our hearts and minds… when gratitude fills our hearts ’til they are bursting… when service to that which is larger gives us in return that joy which can only come from serving… Tell me then – tell me, how can we keep from singing?
May it ever be so.