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SPR Chicago Great Vigil 2013

My brothers and sisters in Christ, I confirm your intuition that we are superior to many of our Christian siblings: Give yourselves a hand for another post-sunset Vigil! Do you know how many Vigils begin before Wheel of Fortune has ended?!

But, our superiority notwithstanding, I’ve been troubled by this night for years. Sure, we outstay the sun; but overhead, high-pressure sodium vapor lamps blaze “at a characteristic wavelength near 589 nanometers.” Under their glare, we look like monsters or jaundice-sufferers; and their replacements aren’t much better: piercing LEDs blaze skeletal light between 4500 and 7000 Kelvin. I don’t think this is what Jesus meant by “the light of the world”.

Still worse than bad artificial light is that the darkness itself is gone. Other than a closet or a cave, where can we flee from the ubiquitous stain of artificial light?

Tonight, I want to take you back to a time when people knew darkness, and the Great Paschal Vigil was REALLY Great!

So close your eyes, but remember to keep your candle upright!

I’m going to channel the spirit of a beloved storyteller… Sophia Petrillo. Instead of saucy memoirs of her youth before emigrating to America—such as her torrid affair with Pablo Picasso— and moving in with The Golden Girls, we’re going back farther. Imagine you are gravelly-voiced Dorothy Sbornak, or promiscuous southern belle Blanche Devereaux, or ditsy Minnesotan Rose Nyland, and travel back with me…Picture it: Sicily. Twelve-hundred twenty-two.

You gather in the darkened piazza before the Norman cathedral in your small city, the only light coming from the first vernal waning gibbous moon, from thousands of stars overhead, and maybe from a few torches burning at a cozy 1900 Kelvin.

As you await the bishop, priests, deacons and choir, you marvel at the dome of the sky with its innumerable little lights. And the moon, so cool and bright. Perhaps you know enough of the Bible to recall that,

“God said, ‘Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.’”

You don’t understand those lights, but you know that they order your year: planting, harvesting, traveling, and praying. They are teachers and guides. You look up one night, and seeing Orion’s belt, you’re reminded that it’s time to mend a fence, or hoe a row, or make a votive offering to help out your late, great aunt, who died under Orion’s belt a few years back, and who, you think, is in purgatory for 240,000 years—yet probably doesn’t deserve more than 50,000 of those.

The clergy arrive. The Bishop sings something in Latin, strikes two rocks together under some dry straw, lighting the new flame, and a taper is lit from it, and the great Paschal candle from the taper. You all move into the cathedral. Picture it: that grand, vaulted volume, pitch-dark except for the spreading candlelight. Imagine no exit signs; opaque windows, unlit without our now-ubiquitous street lights. Imagine how you feel huddled in the dark in the darkest night of the year—the night when Jesus lay dead in the tomb.

Keep your eyes closed as long as you like, but promise not to set your bulletin afire or drip wax on your neighbor’s new spring frock.

Lest all this exposition confound you, or you wonder why this musician was given leave to prattle on about darkness and stars, I declare to you in this night of all nights that these images are not beside the point. They are the very heart of the matter. They are our jump seat from a “faith airplane” pulled down by religious precepts and dogmas. They are the trampoline on which we bounce upward from lifeless rationalizing to belief in the inexplicable.

It’s easy to not believe stories about global floods, talking bushes, men living in fish bellies, virgin women bearing children, men bringing the dead back to life and returning to life after being murdered. We roll our eyes when hearing that Methuselah’s nine-hundred years old. I mean, c’mon, Methuselah, you look like hell, but isn’t that because you chain-smoked and spent too much time at the beach as a young man? 900?!

To our enlightened credit here at SPR, we’re pretty OK with metaphor. If during coffee hour someone divulges an inclination to believe that The Man Upstairs really did create the heavens and the earth, et… al… , in six days, you might hold back a guffaw (and with it a blob of moist cookie), and opine that, if God did create the universe, God has been more impressive for having enough patience and persistence to spin out the project over 12 billion years. Way to go, God! Most of us would have gotten bored or distracted at least eleven billion years ago.

But with the lights dimmed, and the organ sparkling in our ears, and Amos’s words shimmering from the choir,

“Seek Him that Maketh the Seven Stars and Orion
And turneth the shadow of death into the morning.” —Amos 5:8

becomes a lot more compelling, at least to my heart–soul–mind contraption. Composer Jonathan Dove took two short and disparate phrases from the Hebrew Bible, and gave us a sublime channel to contemplate the source of darkness and light, of life and death.

My tastes seem to cluster under two headings, and I’ve described myself on Facebook as “teetering between the sublime and the ridiculous”. Examples:

* gothic architecture and the Muppets
* Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and tongue-in-cheek hymn rewrites (“Pleased as punch with us to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel”)

I love the Great Paschal Vigil, because it, too, teeters between the sublime and the ridiculous. It is our most elaborately symbol-laden worship event, containing within itself the transformation of darkness into light, of mere words into inspiring stories, of tree sap into perfume, of oil into armor, of wheat and grapes into bread and wine, and of bread and wine into flesh and blood, of strangers into family, of death into life. It is the sensory smörgåsbord of the year, delighting with sight and sound and scent and taste and touch.

It is also ridiculous. That we would “waste” a night off sitting in the dark, listening to these same old stories, eating a bite of bread. That a splash of water on the forehead could make us impervious to sin. Jesus came back from the grave? Walked through walls? Cooked a fish? Gathered a billion followers, practically none of whom ever met the guy, or even saw him on telly? Ridiculous!

In his book, Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, English philosopher and self-identified atheist Alain de Botton argues that atheists cheat themselves of valuable life resources by dissing religion. Instead, Atheists should steal from religion, for what apart from it has given the world so much in the way of Wisdom, Community, Kindness, Education, Tenderness, Perspective, and Art? Between us and them, the gulf widens and narrows along its course. The average atheist asks the same questions we all wrestle with, and concludes that there can be no God. Yet we, with no more hard data than she has, are prone to gather in darkness, sing inspiring poetry set to lovely melodies, and converse with compassionate friends. Who looks wiser to you?

Faith gains traction with a seepage of aesthetics and experience. My anemic faith is nourished by a couple of people taking the plunge for Christ right here in this pool. I’m more inclined to go looking when Amos commands because Jonathan Dove adorned his words with sublime music and thus sang them directly to my heart. Sitting here with you, our faces warmed and illumined by these flickering candles, and a little incense on the nose, I feel strong enough to raise my head above the ambient Trumpian miasma and fill my lungs with pure air when Paul says, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

Our liturgy, and especially this Great Paschal Vigil, is the Church’s greatest offering, buoying us across rough seas of doubt and despair, as it has for millions through the centuries.

So, my friends, let’s exploit it! Be promiscuous in sharing it! Have you been to an SPR funeral recently? Maybe David Wallace’s or Glenda Mowatt’s? Or a wedding, like Lydia & Laurie’s? In all these cases the church was PACKED with visitors. And those same visitors, whether churched or not, gushed about…the liturgy! About the preaching and music and the dignity and the beauty—and the welcome. I bet if they were here tonight, they would be transfixed and transformed! Invite them!

To a world in need of solace and strength, we present our marriage liturgy, our burial liturgy, and our Great Paschal Vigil. All come with rich experiences; all name and invite our joy, hope, grief, anxiety, loneliness, and love at times of great importance in our lives—the creation of a new family, the death of a loved one, and the welcoming of a new Christian into the household of God; and each houses these actions and emotions within a time-tested framework that permits worshipers to rest in the knowledge that it’s all been done before, and there’s nothing to worry about. The liturgy supports us.

Gathered here in relative darkness, we keep vigil for salvation promised in scripture. We know the end of the story, right? Jesus rises from dead! Happiness comes to us all! But it’s not quite like that—the story is still being written. Salvation is still being wrought. This Great Vigil is a metaphor for our lives. We are becoming the army of light to slowly and fitfully perfect God’s justice on earth. When we renewed our baptismal vows, we renewed our promise to respond to God’s call to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”

Yet first, we promised to “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers”. You see? Before we are sent out to continue the resurrection work God calls us to, we promise to let the Church inspire and nourish us through word and sacrament. Tonight is our feast of feasts.

This resurrection work is immense, like God. Do you remember the words of the second half of Jonathan Dove’s anthem?

“Alleluia, yea, the darkness shineth as the day, the night is light about me.”

This comes from Psalm 139, which is all about divine perspective: how big God is, how God is everywhere, how small I am, how intimately God knows me. A now-deceased friend, scholar, teacher and priest, Marilyn McCord Adams, delighted to remind us in her sermons that “God is very, very big; and we are very, very small.” It may seem ironic, but we need to know how small we are. Alain de Botton writes about perspective that,

“Being put in our place by something larger, older, greater than ourselves is not a humiliation; it should be accepted as a relief from our insanely hopeful ambitions for our lives.”

The work of salvation is God’s work; it is Jesus’ work through his death and resurrection and the building of his Church. Yes, God needs us, but we also need to remember how small we are, how much we need God. We cannot do it alone, nor are we asked to.

Let’s return to the darkness, to the 13th century. In that imagined piazza, the night sky reminds us of God’s very-bigness. In that dark imagined cathedral, the Church tells story after story—12 or more of them!—of God’s miraculous creation and redemption of the world, then baptizes and exorcises and anoints and prays through the long darkness until the Greater Light creeps over the horizon and through the stained glass windows, the sun carrying the resurrected Son—in the eucharist—back to his flock on the dawn of the new day. In this great drama, the Church uses the natural order as stage and props, “and it is marvelous in our eyes. On this day the LORD has acted; we will rejoice and be glad in it.”

And then we can “go in peace to love and serve the Lord”, whose resurrection we both await and celebrate.

Thanks be to God.


A Walt Disney World 25th anniversary


Twenty-five years ago today, I began a brief but enjoyable stint as a Cast Member (CM) at Walt Disney World (WDW),  from which I derived some valuable lessons for life and work, many great and happy memories, and some wonderful friendships.

For those of you who want more details, I started working (after 3 days of Disney Traditions instruction) at The Land Theaters (Kitchen Kabaret & the film “Symbiosis” in the Harvest Theater), then, after a few months cross-trained at Journey into Imagination (where my trainer chewed gum and platonically smooched fellow CMs onstage—No, no no!). After a few more months, I cross-trained for the oh-so-glamorous Spaceship Earth. In the meantime, I also was a facilitator for the Seas Immersion Program, a half-day field trip experience in marine science for elementary school groups; and Synergy and Science, a full-day field-trip experience in science and technology for middle-school groups. They were the real highlights of my year of full-time employment, but there were fun times on the front lines, too. Cleaning 3D glasses backstage on Christmas Day was not my most inspirational time, but processing thousands of guests a day in the queues of “Imag” (How many cars can I pack full when these people aren’t related?) and “Spaceship” during Christmas and summer rushes was exhilarating in a way.

The two greatest joys, however, were the wonderful friends I made, many of whom are still important in my life, and the almost endless freedom to explore the theme parks and resort areas of WDW—onstage AND backstage—at virtually no cost. This was the ten-year dream come true! EVERY Saturday evening, a dear friend, and fellow Land Theaters CM, and I would scramble as quickly as we could from EPCOT Center up to park the car at the Polynesian or Grand Floridian Resort to catch the boat launch to the Magic Kingdom for Mountain Madness Saturdays, when MK was open until midnight, even in low season, celebrating the recent opening of Splash Mountain (the grand opening of which I participated in). Every Saturday, there were two performances of the night parade SpectroMagic (9 & 11), and a 10 PM fireworks show. I could watch exactly the same fireworks over and over again for years, which basically I did, every Saturday at the MK, and often at EPCOT Center (Illuminations) whilst working. We dashed from ride to ride, usually ending the evening with a just-before-midnight ride on one of the Frontierland mountains, or on Peter Pan’s Flight, simple yet lyrical and magical. Then, we would shop our way back up Main Street, USA, as the crowds thinned, and sometimes sit in the rocking chairs on the front porch of the Town Square Theater to watch the last of the tired but contented guests leave the park before we would catch one of the last launches back to our car. I’d get home around 1:30 AM, and get to bed around 2.

Then, every Sunday morning at about 7, I would get a call from Bill the Lead saying that that same unnamed Cast Member had called in again, and could I work a double shift, starting at 9. For the overtime pay, I was always willing, even if I dragged!

As a Cast Member, we had access! If we were in the Magic Kingdom on a busy day, and wanted to get quickly from Adventureland to Tomorrowland, we could slip in a Cast Members Only gate, go downstairs into the mysterious and exciting Utilidors tunnel system, and shortcut all the way across the park without encountering a single stroller. If we were out playing anywhere on property, and got hungry, we could drop into any one of the Cast Member cafeterias (there’s at least one for every park and resort hotel), and eat well and cheaply. The cafeteria at the Yacht & Beach Clubs was my favorite. It often had yummy leftovers from the nightly Clambake at a steal, but we tried all of them, I think. And, if we wanted to splash out, we could use our WDW ID to get discounts in sit-down restaurants. We got great deals on hotel rooms, and, if family came to visit, who could pass up the chance to stay in a Disney resort hotel? Mom came; Dad & brother came; Mom & cousin came. Later on, we made memories on a great family trip, after I had left full-time employment, but still had seasonal privileges.

Those Utilidors! For years, I had read about the magical system of tunnels below the MK, the heartbeat of the whole operation. On Day Two of Traditions, we boarded a bus outside Disney University, north of the MK, and were driven to the tunnel entrance under and behind Pinocchio’s Village Haus Restaurant. My heart skipped a beat when I first stepped in there (ignoring, I guess, the enormous and smelly dumpster off to one side). Later on, we figured out how to drive around behind the Magic Kingdom with our CM parking passes and ID cards. We explored the tree farm, where, at least in the good old days, every tree on property had growing a twin, so, should damage or destruction occur, replacements could happen almost instantly. One night, on a back road, we saw armadillos. We went to the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Review way too many times, at half-price for the last show. We went to way too many character breakfasts. And bought way too many discounted souvenirs from Property Control in the north service area, and from Bargain Basement, a long-defunct shop under the MK where CMs could snap up soft toys et al at 80% off retail.

So many great memories, but advancement wasn’t coming quickly enough, and I really disliked Central Florida (& its weather). Along the way, I had taken my first church-musician job, at a conservative, evangelical, pro-life Episcopal Church in Longwood, north of Orlando. I was looking for a way to make music again after having not played piano or organ for months, and I needed some extra money, since full-time at WDW only guaranteed 30 hours a week (we usually worked 40 or more only during high season), and pay was only a little above minimum wage. In the few months that I served this congregation (where I was the musician for the “traditional’ service, i.e, fewer songs with guitars, none of which guitars I had to play), I learned that I loved the work, but that I needed more say over the kind of community I could work with, and also that I needed more training to be able to make church music to the level (King’s College Cambridge!) to which I aspired. I left WDW in October 1993, 13 months after I began, though I kept my Casual Temporary status until August of 1999, returning at least one week a year to work and play again.

When I interviewed for a church musician job in Branford, Connecticut, just as I was beginning graduate school, the committee asked me what skills I could bring to my work in church music from my recent experience at Walt Disney World. It was, I think, the most unexpected question ever posed to me in a job interview. But, you know, I had an answer. I learned at Walt Disney World that safety, courtesy, show and efficiency are all values that we can transfer to all our work, even our life. Dignity and polish in worship is an important goal for most of us in church work, and Disney excels at polish. I had learned that there is a difference between my on-stage and off-stage personae, and the way I carry myself professionally is extremely important; as Kramer said to Miss Rhode Island in Seinfeld, “Poise!” I had learned to respect all people, and to treat everyone with dignity. I learned that “they are not handicapped people (or worse yet, ‘wheelchairs’!), but people with disabilities” (language that has been further finessed in the years since). I learned that, though I may have seen a show hundreds of times, for someone in the audience, it was their first time, and I needed to ensure that their first time was as enjoyable and exciting as everyone else’s first time had been. I learned that keeping your hands and feet inside the car at all times might save your life, or at least your limbs (literally); that Vo-ban is your new best friend; and that “a cockroach the size of a small puppy” on Mr. Hamm was ample reason for the show to go 101.

Great times. Valuable lessons. Beautiful places. Wonderful people. Those were my Peter Pan days, and I am so grateful for them!


When your vocabulary is limited, outcomes are not always what you desire at Il Barbiere di Roma!



It’s time to start a new category. Something like “Rants I Need to Broadcast”. Or, perhaps I should entitle it “Y’know What Annoys Me” as a tongue-in-cheek homage to my late, beloved Poppa.

I went to the local post office yesterday to buy stamps for an important mailing, and didn’t want just ‘anything’. They had two options: US flags and a person. Neither was appropriate. The reason given: “The postage lady has been on vacation for two weeks and we’re out of everything.” The [very pleasant] clerk suggested that I could “go to the post office just down the street… well not JUST down the street” (3 miles away) to see what they had available.


I called ahead. *ring* *ring* *ring* (about 20).

A woman finally answered. I asked what she had in stamps. She went away for a couple of minutes, and came back with news that they had one design that should suit my needs.

I drove out there (20 minutes), and stood in line for 20 minutes or more, chatting with two very friendly women ahead of me, one of whom commiserated about the sorry state of customer service at the USPS. She said that, after too many times waiting in long lines to buy stamps, she started buying them online…

…until the time that about $50 worth of stamps never showed up. And—can you believe this?!—since the USPS sends stamps ordered on their website by regular first-class mail with no tracking or guaranteed delivery, she had no way to prove that they were never delivered.

So, now she’s back to standing in line at the post office (or buying elsewhere, where you have much less to choose from).

I reached the counter, where the “stamps we have available” card on the desk showed about 8 designs…

…and was told that they had only 2: “Celebrate” and “Eid”.


I asked the agent what one is to do. She basically told me that they can’t order stamps as fast as they sell them, because the higher-ups don’t trust them not to lose or have them stolen.

People, WHAT IS WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE?!?! This is the F#$%ing United States Postal Service. Their whole BUSINESS is selling stamps and delivering mail. I already know that they are, generally speaking, at least in Chicago, pretty incapable of the latter. [Remember when the slogan for Priority Mail was “2 days, $2”? Now it’s “About 6 dollars, and it probably won’t get there any sooner than if you had just sent it first-class, which is also pretty slow and unreliable nowadays, but you can hope that the recipient will be distracted by the swell of patriotism that comes from seeing all that red, white and blue on the envelope/parcel”]


From now on, at least until I no longer require the services of the USPS at all, I’m buying them on, which doesn’t charge me for delivery, and offers parcel tracking at no additional charge.

And I used to kind of like the post office when I was younger. I guess it was total naïveté.

And, by the way, where’s my mail?




Tonight, I am listening to “Simple Gifts: Shaker Chants and Spirituals”, a 1995 recording by The Boston Camerata with The Schola Cantorum of Boston and The Shaker Community of Sabbathday Lake, Maine, conducted by Joel Cohen At the time of its recording, only a few Shakers were still living at the only continuing Shaker community, Sabbathday Lake, Maine. I have pulled my two books by Sister Frances Carr, “Growing Up Shaker” and “Shaker My Plate” from my bookshelves, both of which Sister Frances inscribed for me during Hurricane Irene in August 2011, the first time we worshiped with the then three remaining Shakers. Today, I learned that Sister Frances, 89, died after a brief bout with cancer. She was the eldest Shaker and the senior member of the community she entered at the age of 10

Today, 2 Shakers remain, from a peak population of 6000 in the mid-19th century.

But do not forget that there are still Shakers, and Sabbathday Lake continues as a Shaker family. Even within the last decade, some have come to Sabbathday Lake to consider joining the community, though none have stayed. The family prays daily that they will receive competent vocations to grow and perpetuate the Shaker community. I join them in those prayers.

For more than two centuries, the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearance has been an important and distinctive witness of God’s love for the world through their life, faith and work, not just resourceful inventors and creators of art and artifacts. Faithful people are called to discern God’s will for their lives and ministries, and a living Shaker community allows us to learn from those bearers of a different witness, rather than from relics of a dead faith. Long may the Shakers live and thrive, that they may continue to build up God’s family on earth, and we may learn from their vision.

Rest in peace, Sister Frances. May God receive your soul with a loving and joyful embrace.

Shaker Village, Sabbathday Lake, ME, August 2007


Bach & Mexico

Apparently, I said this 3 years ago today upon attending a CSO performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s B-minor Mass, not a bad piece of music. Facebook reminded me of it, and I thought it was worth broadcasting more widely.

Chicago, IL
16 April 2013

I ate salsa, guacamole, torta, and drank mescal and margarita. Then, I stepped outside into the cold, damp, gray, windy Chicago evening. A fitting reality check before a performance of Bach’s B-minor Mass. What would Bach, that dour old Lutheran, have known of the sultry, sensual pleasures of Mexico? Bach was a Chicago-style composer.

I heard Bach’s B-minor Mass this evening by the CSO. IF I had run into the composer at the bar afterwards, I might have said, “That was a pretty good song, Jack. Good effort.” Would a Lutheran expect anymore than that?

[delivered at The Great Vigil of Easter, Saturday 26 March 2016
at The Church of St. Paul & the Redeemer, Chicago, IL]

I stood before the stuffed & mounted bird, and read about Martha, the last passenger pigeon to die, and I wept.

Martha’s death on September 1st, 1914, marked the first documented extinction of a species at the hand of Man. Hundreds of millions of passenger pigeons had been sacrificed almost purely for sport, by selfish, myopic humans.

Consider the ram. The angel intervenes to save Isaac. A ram appears. Abraham kills the ram in Isaac’s stead, yet the angel did not command it.

Abraham ram passenger pigeon

God tells Adam and Eve, “subdue” and ”have dominion”, and for a hundred thousand generations, we have our way with creation.

Industrial agriculture leads to e. coli contamination, and the flesh of millions of animals is discarded. Animals are merely products, commodities.

We heat and cool and fly and drive and shop and waste, and polar bears starve and drown as the ice melts away.

The Son of God is sacrificed by human hands for human sinfulness, yet we continue to sacrifice God’s creation for our own vainglory and ignorance. How many more of God’s children must die to satisfy our craving for wealth, comfort, status, power?

The Psalmist says God does not require burnt offering. How many more substitutionary sacrifices do we require?

“The Lord will provide”, but for our needs only? Or also for our whims, capricious wants, selfish desires?

We the recipients of such priceless gifts as forgiveness of sin and eternal life through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ taunt God by despoiling the same creation that God deemed “very good”.

To use God’s creation gently, to care for it as if its Creator will return home from a long absence: these are true actions de grâces—thanksgiving—for the endless love and mercy of God toward us and all creation.

Consider the ram.

IMG_2411I barely knew the name “Maurice Duruflé” when in my first year in the Choral Conducting program at Yale, it fell to me and my fellow singers to learn “the Duruflé Requiem”. A classmate was preparing it for performance at the annual All Souls’ Eucharist of The Episcopal Church at Yale, and we fellow conducting students were in the choir.

I don’t remember much about the rehearsals, or my response to the music, except that it was positive. The sonic image seared in my memory, however, is of the sole
mn entrance procession that first Sunday evening in November 1995. We musicians sang and played the Introit in the broad, rounded chancel in Battell Chapel, while the clergy, acolytes and thurifer processed down the aisle silently… except for the quiet metallic clank of the chain against the thurible, wafting its perfume into the vast Victorian space of the chapel. Every time I listen to the Introit, my memory adds the clink of chain against brass, as if its part had been written in the conductor’s score by Duruflé himself.

Moe vivid than my memory of preparation and performance are the people and things that mingled in my mind with Duruflé’s Requiem. When I listen to it, I think of Doug, the conductor, who would become and remains one of my dearest friends, and of all my other beloved friends, places and experiences from those fun and deeply formative years at Yale.

Maurice Duruflé was active as a musician and composer at just the right time to nurture this piece into existence. He was a devout Roman Catholic whose theological and æsthetic predilections coincided perfectly with a brief revival of medieval musical practice in the church in France before the reforms of the Second Vatican Council began to take effect in the 1960s. The Benedictines at Solesmes were extremely influential in a revival of the Church’s ancient repertoire of plainsong (AKA, Gregorian chant) in the early 20th century, and the modal harmonies suggested by those old melodies aligned with and inspired a rich language that became one (conservative) thread in the tapestry of French music. Duruflé, who had been a choirboy in the cathedral at Rouen, was steeped in church music. While a student at the Conservatoire, he studied
under Louis Vierne and Charles-Marie Widor, both monumental figures in the history of French symphonic organ repertoire and church music in Paris, and eventually with Paul Dukas, his most influential mentor in composition. All of these influences coalesce in his music.

Like Dukas, Duruflé was extremely self-critical of his own compositions, extensively revised his work, and published very little: only 14 works in a long life (By comparison, Bach wrote well over a thousand, Mozart many hundreds.). Attracted to the plainsong melodies from the Roman Mass for the Dead, he began writing an organ suite based on them prior to 1941. When, in that year, he received a commission for a major work, he decided to expand the organ suite into the piece we hear today. The Requiem was completed in September 1947, and dedicated to the memory of his father, who had died in 1945.

Duruflé’s Requiem bears some similarity in structure and tenor to that of Gabriel Fauré, which we sang here a year ago. It, too, omits or plays down some of the more wrathful themes of the Mass for the Dead, and emphasizes comfort and hope. Like Fauré, Duruflé omits the Dies iræ, the movement for which Verdi famously wrote truly terrifying music, and includes the burial hymn “In paradisum”, depicting angels leading the soul of the deceased to heaven.IMG_2630

Where Duruflé’s music moves beyond Fauré’s is in its rich and nuanced melodies, harmonies and moods. Duruflé did not explicitly associate his Requiem with France’s sufferings in World War II, but one may hear within it the sorrow, fear and pathos resulting from years of occupation and oppression. Duruflé was also a different person from Fauré. You might remember that Fauré claimed to have written his Requiem “for the pleasure of it”. Duruflé—much more sober, pious, insecure—might simply have evoked himself in music, as surely Fauré had.

Duruflé’s music is like that of the French symphonists, with complex accompaniments and polyphony, reflecting his musical pedigree. Fauré’s music is much more of the salon. There are darkness and depth in the Duruflé Requiem, both less evident in Fauré’s. Duruflé’s moments of beauty and peace are similarly multifaceted. The concluding ”In paradisum” is ravishing because of a stunning combination of near static peace and complex harmony, suspended from an ancient melody of the Church. Fauré may have been the first to be called a “voluptuous Gregorianist”, but of the two, Duruflé is the much more worthy recipient of the “Gregorianist” mantle. If Fauré’s ”In paradisum” depicts heaven as a garden with dewdrops falling like crystals off sun-dappled leaves, Duruflé’s imagines a much less familiar paradise, not quite discernible through a morning mist.

My other association, inexplicable yet profound, of this magnificent and truly life-changing work, is with the death of my maternal grandmother, whom we called Nana, and who died only a few weeks after I sang the Requiem at that 1995 All Souls’ Mass. Nana had almost surely never heard of Duruflé nor of this work, and yet, every time I listen to, sing, or play the “Agnus Dei”, which we will sing at the Offertory today, I remember her. Not as she was that cool November evening, reduced by advanced Alzheimer’s Disease to a confused, dehydrated, murmuring stranger, a human vessel emptied of her soul and her understanding, but as the vivacious, social Italian American fashionista, who called me, alternately, “Chris” (one of very few people who ever did) and “Christian Clough”. The woman whose home was almost as much mine as was our own house; and where so many Sunday dinners, weeknight suppers, carefree overnights, and joyful holidays birthed my own understanding of family and hospitality. In the interlude after the altos’ first prayer, when the bass line makes its slow, haunting descent, and the violins and violas sing their first pleading melody, I see Amelia Piccolino Dowdall, hear her voice, and smell the aromas of another delicious and nourishing meal, to which we will soon be warmly welcomed.

“Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant to them eternal rest.”

This is the power and sacred gift of music: to awaken mind and heart and soul to the blessings of joy and sorrow that embrace us in this brief and beautiful life, and perhaps to move us to offer thanks to God for them.
Chicago, Illinois; 27 October 2015

I consulted the following biography:
Frazier, James E. Maurice Duruflé: The Man and His Music. Rochester: U of Rochester P, 2007
in preparing this reflection.

The pollen of elms troubles my eyes

How mine eyes
Tear and weep.

Is it the pollen of elms?
New Haven’s eponymous trees?
The elms are back from weakness, disease.
I return from there, too.

We gather,
Sit beneath the great
Barrel vaults. The
Florid rood floats, almost,
Faces in faux-ancient
Glass gaze down.
“Do we remember you?”
Their stares draw my
Gaze to them, to the
Western light, the
Vesper glow.

What tears! Is it the
Pollen of elms, or the
Bright sun, which
Makes me weep?
Such distorted vision—
Prismatic view!

Whom do I see?
Friends long since departed,
To both other places and planes.
The bat boy flitters nude across the parlor,
The chunky one flounces before the tube,
Taunting the weird, bearded one.
Beets pour forth,
An endless sea of beets.
And the fragrant, baked egg yolks.
The lazy man naps in the dining room niche.
Jolly rings.
The first real love approaches—
What fear!
Funky, chunky,
crazy, annoying,
Krauts, Canucks,
Tiger Lily,
Beer me!
Leona Helmsley lives again.
Miner, Murray,
Lara, Lackstrom.
Faces pass in eye mist:
Newberry, Dwight, Marquand—
Pipes by the thousands.
Velut maris stella!

Two Dots… then a dash?
No, stay!
I cannot.
I must go
To grow.

I have gone.
Are you still there?
Yes. No.

When I close my weeping eyes,
I see you.

I open my eyes,
And you are there
In the tears.
“There we sat down,
Yea, we wept.
How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a strange land?”

I am back!
You are here…
You are gone.
Your face, your smile,
Your voice.
We meet, embrace,

Friendly faces
Peer from the windows I pass.
Again, I return,
Must go.
All my godsons,
How they’ve grown!
And my Mentor
Prepares for a final

I can’t see.
My nose drips.
Images and memories
The allergens,
But not the irritant:
It is the absence,
The distance.

I hear “Singet”
And remember when
I last sang
Truly well.
Under the elms.

I am here again—
Must I say good-bye?

A score of years
Since I arrived,
Yet even after so many away,
It is still a reuniting
To return.

Could I have left
My heart in New Haven?
Hardly, you say,
And yet,
Why this weeping
When I return?

Is it only the
Myopia of age and
Nostalgia that makes me see only
Your warm smile?
Has the cheek sunken?
The hair thinned?
The waist grown?

Or are you still the
Rough Beauty
I came to love?

Wipe the tears,
And let me see
You, in the
Vesper Light
Filtered through the saints,
And the elms.

High-Acreage Curiosity

I’m getting ready to take Putney (my dog, for those who haven’t met him) to Camp Clough (AKA my parents) for the summer. I’m leaving soon for 20 days, part of which is a liturgy conference at Yale.

I’m expecting a house guest for two nights, immediately before departing. I haven’t had an overnight guest for months, and the guest room is the staging area for storing winter clothes and disposal of things I no longer need.

Behind my piano is a pile of music: ten volumes of piano rags and French romantic chansons from the Chicago Public Library, a tote bag of choral octavos from Ellen Fisher, a borrowed collection of Schubert piano duets.

Behind my couch is a basket of issues of Maine: the Magazine, Vermont Life, National Geographic, unread, awaiting reading.

My refrigerator is packed full, most of its contents a large collection of sauces, relishes and other accompaniments I’ve picked up in stores trading in local and artisan foods. They keep well, but get used in exceedingly small quantities. On the kitchen shelves is a similar collection of unopened toppings. There are five jars of different kinds of mustard from Raye’s <> in Eastport, ME . One is open.

Mustard jars

I live alone.

And then there are the books.

A friend of mine popped his head in my office last week, and said, “It looks like a dorm room.”

Scattered about therein are more books and scores.

I need to say right now that I am NOT a collector. In my twenties, I realized that the few collections I had collected for the sake of having collections brought me no joy. There was remorse for spending money on things that had no utility. I committed to no more collecting. No thimbles, no bone china plates of exotic places. Not that there’s anything wrong with it.

In tidying for my guest’s arrival and my departure, I see the problem, arising from my being a curious person. Working with a life coach <> a few years ago, I articulated a life purpose that is, briefly, to guide others to uncover their own curiosity to lead them to discovery and learning. My life purpose grows out of my own attitude. I find meaning and joy in vacuuming up experiences, then letting them shape my perspective and choices. I thrive on exceptional sensory experiences. Five jars of mustard could tell you that (actually, there are seven jars, but only five from Raye’s) with a translator.

The musical scores, the magazines, the Mason jars. These are containers for experiences. They gather around me, offering adventures. But they compete with each other for my time and energy, and my space. They conflict with my desire to simplify, to live more like the Shakers I visited a few summers ago.

I am immensely blessed to know that curiosity will never, ever let me be bored in this too-short life.

But it’s taking up a lotta space in my apartment!