Advent: A Chance to Try
It is now Advent, and a new Church year has begun. In this new liturgical year, it’s a goal of mine to post here more regularly regarding the intersection of music and spirituality. For this first post, I take as my jumping-off point a TED Talk given by the architect Siamak Hariri about his design of the Bahá’í Temple of South America. I was asked to view this talk for a course I am taking, and I found that I really connected with much of Hariri’s thought regarding creativity and design. My instructor thought that my reflection would make a good published article, so I have integrated portions of it into this post. This all ties into Advent, I promise you, so read on!
During his talk, Hariri speaks eloquently about his work as an architect, and his words really resonate for me as a liturgical musician and especially as a composer:
You know, you aspire for beauty, for sensuousness, for atmosphere, the emotional response. That's the realm of the ineffable and the immeasurable. And that's what you live for: a chance to try.
When I set myself to composing a new piece of music, liturgical or not, this is really what it’s all about, “a chance to try.” Hariri articulates this so much better than I can. But I’ll share a related personal story.
In 2011, our Church famously implemented a new English translation of the Roman Missal, the first retranslation since the vernacular was introduced after the Second Vatican Council. This meant priests, musicians, and other ministers helping our congregations learn new wordings of well-known prayers, most notably the Mass Ordinary. Not an easy task! In my mind, a new translation meant we needed new musical settings, not just a retrofitting of old standbys like Marty Haugen’s Mass of Creation, because music helps us remember the words, and helps the prayers become part of us. In addition, I felt that many of the early settings being introduced were lacking in depth and overly simplistic in their approach to these complex texts. So, I set out to write my own setting – “a chance to try.” I wanted to find a way for my congregation to connect to a new translation that is often rhythmically irregular and resists easy melodic adaptation, but was now to be the very heart of our liturgical texts.
I memorized the texts so that I could sing to myself and work out melodic and harmonic details whenever I had a moment. At the time, my son was only about two years old, and I would sing him to sleep at night. I composed much of the Gloria and Sanctus while holding him in the dark, his head pressed against my chest. My wife was often helping my eldest daughter, then five years old, to sleep, as my daughter was undergoing chemotherapy for childhood cancer and had trouble sleeping. I mention all of this because this “chance to try” happened amidst a unique blend of spiritual, worldly, and cosmic thought, a strange synthesis not unlike Hariri’s juxtaposed photos of a galaxy and a child’s hair that partially inspired his temple design:
I felt this same “swirl” on my son’s head as I quietly sang and pieced together my new Gloria in the dark. Like the great structures of sacred architecture, it was an experience of light and darkness together, in which I hoped God would illuminate me.
In the fall of 2011, in the lead-up to Advent, I gradually began introducing the new setting, Mass of Redeeming Love, to my parish. After a few weeks, people began to find the courage to tell me what they thought of the new setting. I was overwhelmed as so many in the parish told me that the music helped them connect to the texts, and that it made the Mass texts meaningful to them in a new and deeper way than before. I reflected on this at the beginning of Hariri’s talk when he told this story:
The school of architecture that I studied at some 30 years ago happened to be across the street from the wonderful art gallery designed by the great architect Louis Kahn. I love the building, and I used to visit it quite often. One day, I saw the security guard run his hand across the concrete wall. And it was the way he did it, the expression on his face – something touched me. I could see that the security guard was moved by the building and that architecture has that capacity to move you. I could see it, and I remember thinking, "Wow. How does architecture do that?"
My fellow parishioners had run their ears and voices over the inside walls of a new Mass setting, in the context of liturgy, and had found something to which they could connect. Similar to Hariri’s design process, I had to be vulnerable in order to be available in order to try to make something meaningful. Like one of our great Advent saints, John the Baptist, I had to decrease in order for God to increase. This continues to be true whether I am composing new music or programming music for liturgy or rehearsing the choir or working with cantors. It’s about “letting the process take you,” as Hariri says.
Advent presents all of us with “a chance to try.” I have listened to several homilies this week, both in church and online, and many of them emphasize the theme of growing closer to God this Advent on a personal level. If we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, then we become more available to God, and our work in God’s name can bear fruit. This is our chance to try.
Just this past weekend (the First Sunday of Advent), a young lady at St. Peter’s came up to me after Mass, very excited to tell me that she has been accepted to Berklee College of Music to study songwriting. While I know this young lady’s family a little bit through my many years at St. Peter’s, I did not know that this young lady was interested in music. But she wanted to share this news with me because, she said, she has always admired the music at our church. I found out that, unknowingly, the Holy Spirit had worked through me (at least when I had been open to it) to help another to open herself to the same Spirit. And now, this young lady has her own “chance to try” through her songwriting.
And so, in this beginning time of a new year of grace, in this time of Advent waiting and watching, I invite you to open up. Be vulnerable, so that you can be available to God. On a specific, practical level, if you are in church and the music starts, open your mouth, breathe, and sing! Let the process take you, because God will work through you to inspire others, bringing you closer to him in the process, closer to “the realm of the ineffable and the immeasurable.” After all, we have been given a chance to try. In other words:
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel.