Tuesday Evening Melody: Allegri’s “Miserere Mei, Deus”
by Lisa Moore, guest contributor
This song affirms that humans create beauty. When that woman’s voice rises above the rest and spirals around, it is pure and intoxicating.
Miserere Mei was written by Italian composer Gregorio Allegri in the late 1630s. As legend has it, this piece of music was protected from being transcribed or played outside of the Sistine Chapel for the Tenebrae (“darkness” or “shadows” in Latin) service. Doing so was punishable by excommunication.
The story goes that, after more than a century, young Mozart heard the work in 1770 and rewrote it from memory when he returned home. His transcription ended up in the hands of an Englishman who published it in 1771. Rather than being excommunicated, Mozart was called to Rome and praised by the pope for his musical genius. The ban was lifted, and now it is one of the most common works to be performed by a cappella choirs.
Why would this song ever have been banned in the first place? Because it was so very beautiful. Perhaps people would hear this music and have a spiritual experience. That experience, of course, could then be had anywhere they heard that music and open a personal pathway to a relationship with God. The Church wanted to be sure that that type of communication could only occur with its guidance and control. There are other examples of music being avoided because of the belief that it insinuated evil, like the tritone.
Other composers also transcribed it, and there is quite the dispute about who got it right and whose version is the best. I first heard a recording by the Dale Warland Singers, so I think I’m stuck with my first love, but there are many recordings — including the gorgeous version above performed by The Sixteen — both with adult and children’s choirs.
As interesting as all of this is, I’m not trying to make any big statement. I just want to share this amazing music that deeply touches my soul, no matter what sort of mood I am in.
Lisa Moore is a medical student at Loyola University in Chicago. She attempts to maintain her identity as more than somebody who studies through yoga, creative cooking, reading, and writing.
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A River Water Blessing
by Michelle Johnson, guest contributor
Matt and Joy Scheidt were raised in the church, but in adulthood they’ve come to assimilate elements of many other spiritual traditions into their lives. When they wanted to welcome their infant son into the world, they drew on those traditions to create a water blessing and invited friends and family to a tributary of the Dan River in North Carolina.
“No matter which culture you come from in the world,” Matt says, ”there’s something innately essential to the value of ritual, however you might conduct that. I was raised Roman Catholic, and I was very heavily invested in serving the church,” he continues. “I guess I kind of wandered. I don’t ascribe to one fixed belief system. I’d call myself an ‘ecumenical humanist,’” he says with a laugh.
“I can’t call myself an ecumenical humanist,” says Joy, who grew up Episcopalian. ”I think that’s too smart for me. I would say that I try to experience as much of the divine world in my life and the lives of others, guided by something innate that came to me when I was young, when I was born. I believe that we all inherently know what we are. There’s something true in us, and, if we’re in line with that, we’re really kind of hitting on life’s fullest potential.”
Michelle Johnson is an audio journalist living in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. This audio slideshow is part of “Sacred Rivers,” a multimedia documentary project under development that explores river rituals as a lens through which to see America’s changing cultural landscape. You can view more of her work at the Yadkin River Story.
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Reflections from the Typing Pool
by Amy Gottlieb, guest contributor
Every day is the anniversary of something. The date on the calendar ripples with other dates, other stories.
It’s now a month since the tenth anniversary of 9/11, when, two days earlier, a dozen of us marched into Manhattan’s Bryant Park wearing somber black vintage clothing, clutching manual typewriter boxes in our hands. Our up-dos and pearls lent us an air of Old New York secretarial efficiency. We were not to appear casual or chatty; we would not be using our cell phones.
When we first took our seats on the plaza, tourists snapped photos as if we were museum specimens. Gradually the first hesitant talkers sat down across from us, then a few more, until the hours passed quickly in an exchange of words and a clattering of keys.
The model for Sheryl Oring’s Collective Memory project was simple: a row of typists, dressed in early 60’s vintage, on the plaza of Bryant Park would take dictation from anyone who wanted to respond to the prompt, “What would you like the world to remember about 9/11?” The responses would be collated and become part of a traveling exhibit. I volunteered to help Sheryl because I am a writer and always dreamed of being a village scribe. Set me up with a carton for a desk and a duffel for a stool; sit across from me and tell me your story so I can write it down for you, clean up your grammar, make sure your words meet their intended destination. This scribal role is not so different from the best moments of writing fiction or poetry; the surprise of inspiration and the work of crafting precise transmission are here, albeit in a diluted form. But what I did not expect was how privileged I felt being the recipient of a stranger’s words. Sit down and open your heart because I am here. My ancient and efficient Underwood will write it all down for you. The illusion of the past will carry your words into the future. What were you doing that day?
We were to receive every narrative with interest; we would be occasionally moved and often not. Some told stories of where they were when the planes hit. Many narrated pithy sentences, as if there was a moral to be found:
Live in the moment.
Do not hate.
Care for one another.
One woman said, “I am a New Yorker and we did not intend for this to cause a war, we did not want a war.” A young woman blatantly told me how the event seemed unreal to her all these years, like a movie, and, now that she is older, she is beginning to consider the import of what really happened. One woman narrated her words for the typewritten record and then told me the real story of how volunteering at Nino’s Restaurant down at Ground Zero in the weeks and months after 9/11 changed the course of her life. Another spoke of how the falling grey ash that day made all the survivors appear the same; all differences were blotted out. Some responses were defiant and political. Many speakers paused between sentences, considering the flow of their words.
Most willingly gave their names, first and last. There was a quiet satisfaction in being heard, in one’s words being recorded on these ancient keyboards.
Thank you for doing this.
Thank you for stopping by.
The act of inviting the telling was beautiful to me, and as fitting a memorial as anything could be.
After two hours I returned to the Bryant Park offices, combed out my up-do and exchanged my somber black dress for jeans. My co-typist slipped on a motorcycle helmet. We found our cell phones, checked email, rode the elevator down to the street, and descended further down into subways.
Sitting on the 1 train, I was once again an ordinary passenger, but what I most wanted to do was turn to the person next to me and ask her to tell me what she was thinking. Not because it was the anniversary of 9/11 but because the words of a stranger speaking through the cracks of her heart felt necessary, and remains necessary every day. I have a typewriter. Tell me a story:
Where were you when something big happened and what are you thinking about now?
Amy Gottlieb is a writer and editor living in New York City. Her fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in the Forward, Lilith, Puerto del Sol, Zeek, and other publications and anthologies. She is the 2010-2011 Poetry Fellow and Resident at the Bronx Council on the Arts and is finishing a novel.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry and contribute to the conversation.
Lead photo by Dhanraj Emanuel.
The Fundamental Tension between Stories and Statistics
by Shubha Bala, associate producer
My favorite dog-earred, page-stained book growing up was The Phantom Tollbooth. I must have read over 40 times about Milo’s quest through the Kingdom of Wisdom to reconcile the rulers of Dictionopolis, the lover of words, and Digitopolis, the lover of numbers. The conclusion of this book, and of John Allen Paulos’ recent post in The New York Times, is that both language and math should reign equally.
Paulos, a mathematician and professor, argues that while narratives and statistics play important roles, people approach them both with different mindsets:
“Despite the naturalness of these notions, however, there is a tension between stories and statistics, and one under-appreciated contrast between them is simply the mindset with which we approach them. In listening to stories we tend to suspend disbelief in order to be entertained, whereas in evaluating statistics we generally have an opposite inclination to suspend belief in order not to be beguiled.”
He goes on to demonstrate this tension by citing examples of statistical errors that are completely natural in storytelling, like the conjunction fallacy.
Journalism, to me, seems to be the attempt to reconcile that tension by finding common space between the data and the narratives. Do you think there is an inherent difference in how we mentally approach statistics and stories? Or is it a tension which can be bridged?
Image above: The dodecahedron, from the children’s book “The Phantom Tollbooth,” has 12 faces each showing a different emotion. (illustration by Jules Feiffer)
Rembrandt’s Divinely Inspired Light: An Unheard Cut from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
“Sometimes you have to kill your puppies.” This is radio producer insider baseball talk for cutting your most precious, beloved bits of tape — the ones that aren’t serving the bigger story you’re trying to tell. Such was the case with Great Britain’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a masterful storyteller appearing in our recent shows “Pursuing Happiness with the Dalai Lama” and “The Dignity of Difference.”
On stage at Emory University with the Dalai Lama this October, Sacks told a story about Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine. When the First World War broke out, he was stranded in Switzerland and later made his way to England. There he found solace in the company of Rembrandt’s paintings at The National Gallery in London.
In the clip above (mp3, 01:31) that never made it into the show, Sacks points out that Rembrandt’s subjects weren’t all that beautiful, but his paintings nevertheless reveal their “inner radiance.” He invites us to find beauty where it’s not immediately obvious, and to expand our perceptions of what’s beautiful.
Rabbi Kook commented on Rembrandt’s masterful use of light in this 1935 interview with The Jewish Chronicle:
“I really think that Rembrandt was a Tzadik. Do you know that when I first saw Rembrandt’s works, they reminded me of the legend about the creation of light? We are told that when God created light, it was so strong and pellucid, that one could see from one and of the world to the other, but God was afraid that the wicked might abuse it. What did He do? He reserved that light for the righteous when the Messiah should come. But now and then there are great men who are blessed and privileged to see it. I think that Rembrandt was one of them, and the light in his pictures is the very light that was originally created by God Almighty.”
And these lines from Rabbi Sacks’ short reflection about art, timeless beauty, and Rabbi Kook’s particular love of Rembrandt resonate:
“Art which aims to shock, shocks only once, while art which aims at beauty never fades. Art as sensation eventually deadens our sensations, while art as wonder wakens them.”
Leaving for a Promised Land, An Ex-Con’s New Life
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Exodus is a story of longing and loneliness, redemption and new horizons. Diana Ortiz, a 45-year-old woman who was incarcerated for 22 years for second-degree murder, tells the story of her conviction, rehabilitation, and the need to show others released from prison the journey can start anew.
Hummingbirds and Outrage Fatigue
by Anne Breckbill, associate web developer
“I think there is such a thing as outrage fatigue. … Because statistics like that and numbers like that, scenarios like that, are as prone to make people throw up their hands and say, well, then, you know, I can’t do anything anyway.”
During her interview with Bill McKibben, Krista suggests that all the bad environmental news and surplus of data can be overwhelming. What a common human response to a challenge that seems insurmountable! Because we cannot do something big, we are tempted to not even take the small, manageable actions that are well within our power. We feel inconsequential, completely forgetting about the cumulative impact of each person who cares for the Earth. This headline from The Onion captures the poignancy of this sentiment: “‘How Bad for the Environment Can Throwing Away One Plastic Bottle Be?’ 30 Million People Wonder.”
Listening to “The Moral Math of Climate Change” also brought to mind the 2009 Sundance Award-winning film Dirt! and the optimistic parable of the hummingbird as told by Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai. Here’s hoping that the 30 million of us who wonder about the impact of one plastic bottle can adopt the tenacity and courage to be hummingbirds.
Children Help Us Embrace the Mystery
by Krista Tippett, host
The notion of God as father is a metaphor, of course, like much religious language. It is necessary approximation and analogy. When I became a mother myself, I was stunned at how little we have filled this metaphor with meaning from the real experience of parenting. The Heavenly Father of my childhood was implacable, inscrutable, all-powerful. But to become a parent in reality is to enter a state of extreme vulnerability. “To become a father,” the French theologian Louis Evely aptly put it, “is to experience an infinite dependency on an infinitely small, frail being, dependent on us and therefore omnipotent over our heart.”
Raising a new human being in this world is a monumental spiritual task, yet we so rarely call it that. This does not become easier when, at some point, our offspring become little theologians and philosophers. They begin to ask huge questions about life and the universe — basic questions about how we got here and where God lives and why people die and why people hurt each other and what it means to be good and to be happy. These questions are the building blocks of religion and ethics. We refine them all of our lives, but at heart they remain the same. What changes is our ability to articulate and act on them.
As parents, we want to support this part of our children’s natures. With other mundane aspects of parenting — like how to help them sleep, or how to feed them, or how to teach them to read — we know that we need help. We seek maps, books, and counselors. But when it comes to these personal, existential questions of meaning, we often feel that we should intuitively have the answers. In my own life, and as I’ve spoken with different people across the country these past years, the spirituality of parenting is often a source of anxiety. It provokes a feeling of inadequacy. This is heightened in our age by the fact that so many of us are less connected to specific religious traditions and institutions than the generations that preceded us. And many of us inherit a mix of spiritual practices in our own histories, marriages, and extended families.
As we prepared to create our show titled “The Spirituality of Parenting,” we put out a call for the reflections and questions of our listeners and newsletter subscribers. Many, many parents wrote in, as well as grandparents and ministers and teachers. You can hear some of their voices and stories, and see their pictures, on our website. Each contribution has been wonderful to read. The breadth of spiritual searching and the diversity of spiritual moorings among them is startling, reflecting the plurality of the culture we inhabit. And more than a few who are deeply rooted in a particular tradition stressed that even they need guidance on how to teach and model a vocabulary of words and practice for exploring religion and meaning and ethics as they share ordinary life with the children they love.
I don’t believe I could have found a better conversation partner than Rabbi Sandy Sasso. Her ideas have kept me pondering, and I’m delighted to send them out into the world. She encourages us to begin with what we know, and also to let our children lead us on a new journey of questioning and learning. We can seek out maps and books and counselors on this part of their development too, and we should. She also urges parents to explore the place they come from, the communities or traditions in their family and background, even if they have left it behind at another stage in life. Don’t let those who modeled the worst of your faith, she adds, define that faith for you. Understand yourself as an ancestor to the next generation, as part of tradition’s unfolding story.
Most of all, we should attend to our children’s musings about life’s wonders and injustices, their grief at the death of a pet or a loved one, their response to a homeless person encountered on the street. It is all right not to have answers for their large moral and existential questions. Unlike adults, children are not afraid of mystery. But they do need us to help them develop vocabularies and ways of living to keep those questions alive and growing. They need to hear how we think about large questions of meaning, and about what experience has taught us. They need to hear our questions and our stories. Stories are the vocabulary of theology for children. They also crave and will use ritual and routine, and we can form these from daily life and commonplace experiences.
I return to the insight I began with — that children can make the essence of religion come alive. They may ultimately teach us far more than we teach them. “Children open windows for us,” Sandy Sasso says, “or can crawl through windows that we can’t crawl through, and they open part of our life that maybe has been dormant for a long time.” The rest is mystery, and our children will help us embrace that more joyfully too.
(photo: Renata Baião/Flickr)