Purgatory is being on hold

Hello. How are you? Have you been all right, through all those lonely lonely lonely lonely lonely nights?
That’s what I’d say. I’d tell you everything
If you’d pick up that telephone

(“Telephone Line,” Electric Light Orchestra)

God sure does seem a long way up there. Photo: Rick Francis
Photo credit: Rick Francis

I recently called an 800  number and, in an effort to serve me better, they put me on hold. Of course my call was very important to them, so I waited 10 minutes, after which I hung up because I was only returning their call anyway. (They had said it was urgent.) So screw ’em, let them call me back if they want to talk to me.

My beef with this situation was not that I had to wait for someone to answer. I was stuck in traffic (so I was already in a mellow mood, right?), and because I knew my call was important to them I didn’t mind waiting for a little while. It was the on-hold music that did me in, and it wasn’t the music’s fault either. It was the dang delivery system, or speaker, or play-back or whatever. It was something like “You Light Up My Life” played by the Lush Strings Orchestra, and it sounded like they were just playing every few notes. No continual flow of music, just this nightmarish in and out: every two or three seconds the music would disappear, like a boat bobbing on waves rising in and out of view. Sorry for the mixed metaphor.

Whatever the music was (and I’m pretty sure it was terrible), I both (A) couldn’t, painfully, tell what it was and (B) had to listen very, very closely, because my call was important to them and it any second a representative could come on the line and tell me so, and since the sound was coming and going I might miss the representative.

So here I am at rush hour, listening intently to this terrible, sporadic signal of something that would be just barely bearable under the best of circumstances. And I thought to myself, because this is the kind of thought that just helps itself to my brain: I thought “I bet this is how a lot people feel about God.”

For a lot of people I know, this is a pretty good metaphor for their relationship with God: it’s both urgent and deeply frustrating. They’re trying to get through on the line, because after all they are aware on some level that God called them first and they want to be polite. It appears that God has put them on hold, and despite wanting to believe that their call is very important to God, God never freaking answers the phone, and furthermore the signal they DO get has all this intermittent bad music–static alternating with silence–and they start to worry that the call has been lost, that maybe the line has gone dead.


Are you there, God? It’s me.

The meaning of life, pt. 2: The Lost Chord

Thanks to victorianweb.org for the         sheet music. 
Thanks to victorianweb.org for the sheet music.

After reading my post of yesterday, my father, who taught me everything I know about listening to music, has reminded me of something that I want to pass along. I’ll give you a little explanation, but very little of my own interpretation. This is just pure, old-fashioned coolness.

In 1877, Arthur Sullivan (of “Gilbert &” fame) wrote a song out of grief, at the bedside of his dying brother. The lyrics came from a poem by Adelaide Anne Proctor published in 1858. Sullivan’s The Lost Chord became a huge Victorian-society parlor success.

The Lost Chord is a richly poetic and prayerful approach to the idea I discussed yesterday in this space. Thank you, Adelaide and Arthur. (And Vincent, too.)

Seated one day at the organ, I was weary and ill at ease / and my fingers wandered idly over the noisy keys. I know not what I was playing, or what I was dreaming then / But I struck one chord of music, like the sound of a great Amen. It flooded the crimson twilight, like the close of an angel’s psalm / And it lay on my fevered spirit with a touch of infinite calm. It quieted pain and sorrow, like love overcoming strife /  It seemed the harmonious echo from our discordant life. It linked all perplexèd meanings into one perfect peace / And trembled away into silence as if it were loth to cease. I have sought, but I seek it vainly, that one lost chord divine / which came from the soul of the organ and entered into mine. It may be that death’s bright angel / will speak in that chord again, it may be that only in Heav’n I shall hear that grand Amen.

There are recordings available online (this will give you a nice feeling for what the song sounded like in Victorian parlors.)

But even better: THIS time-travelly wonder is a recording from August 14, 1888, introducing Mr. Thomas Edison’s Perfected Phonograph to the London press, playing a song everyone knew.

You want the meaning of life? Look no further than Pachelbel’s Canon. I’m not kidding.

I wake up to the sound of music, mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be. (Paul McCartney)

You know Pachelbel’s Canon in D, even if you don’t know it by name (which is actually “Canon and Gigue for Three Violins and Basso Continuo.”) The 17th-century composition burst on the modern scene as the opening music to the suuuuuuper-depressing 1980 movie “Ordinary People.” Unfortunately, the piece has become a bit of a cliché, appearing on every “Greatest Baroque Hits” and “Wedding Favorites” album for the past 30 years. And that’s too bad, because (as you may have heard) familiarity breeds contempt. (Rabbit Trail Alert: Leonard Cohen requested, in a Rolling Stone interview, a moratorium on new covers of “Hallelujah”: “I think it’s a good song,” he said, “but too many people sing it.”)

Johann Pachelbel was a German Baroque composer; that he wrote the Canon in D is the only thing I know about him. My favorite version is the Jean-Francois Paillard Chamber Orchestra playing what would be perfection if it weren’t hubris to declare something man-made to be perfect. It’s not too fast or slow, not too fussy, not over-instrumentalized, and has nice dynamic variations. Listen to it here, and then I’ll tell you why you should, again and again.

It is my completely humble and non-hyperbolic opinion that this (nearly) perfect piece of music is a window on the Eternal, for several reasons. A: There is the strong, persistent bass line throughout (about the rate of a heartbeat): a deep, steady and unwavering foundation. (Like God.) B: The high melody flows over the top, with its variations providing unbearable sweetness and piercing sadness and heavy-duty beauty. (Like Life.) And C: The chord structure is grounded in our DNA .

I am reminded of something Elton John said once in an interview with the late David Frost: “When in doubt, write a hymn.”

Rabbit Trail Alert 2: Music theorists (of which I am not one) could tell you that chord relationships-slash-progressions are a Thing. A chord doesn’t just have a letter name (D, G, Am, etc.), it has a relationship to the other chords in the key. As an obsessively passionate music listener and (competent) performer, I experience these profound chord-relationship vibrations in my gut, where God lives. If you are not a musician or a music-lover, you’ll have to trust me on this.

Ninety percent of my favorite songs feature the various combinations of the same chords that you hear in Pachelbel’s Canon, and the songs are by no means all similar. Further: many, many, many of the most-loved pieces of music–hymns and pop songs and sacred classic rock tunes–use the same chords. (Guitar players and other musicians, check it out: D major, A major, B minor, F# minor, G major, D major, G major, A major.)*

The essential chords may be in a different order from song to song, and of course tunes vary, just as the details of life vary from person to person. But the interplay between major and minor in these chords: this is life. And the underlying, repeating harmonic structure, the basso continuo, if you will, unites our heart beats with the heartbeat of the Great Music. This is God in the gut, where God lives.

Music…will help dissolve your perplexities and purify your character and sensibilities, and in time of care and sorrow, will keep a fountain of joy alive in you. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

*All these beloved anthems have their foundation in the same chord-relationships as the Canon in D: Dan Fogelberg’s Old Lang Syne (based on the 1812 Overture), Kansas’ Dust in the Wind, Elton’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, McCartney’s Let it Be. Also: the hymn On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry, the 1938 Heart and Soul everybody plays on every piano they see, and every bubblegum song from the 50’s.

**Oh, and by the way: “Hallelujah” fits here, too, of course, and not just in its chord structure and melody. The secret chord that pleased the Lord “goes like this:  the fourth, the fifth / The minor fall, the major lift…”

***And one more thing: If you’re sitting there saying “Yeah, but don’t all songs pretty much use the same chords, so what’s your point?” then you’ve missed my point. For your punishment, shut up and watch this.

From L&O to God in one fell swoop

Jack McCoy

I don’t watch Law & Order anymore; I have changed my mind about what qualifies as edifying for me (like: the stupefied watching of violent TV really isn’t, as it turns out.) But I did like that sound, and of course Jack McCoy: so serious, so morally (sort of) upright, so tortured.

But, speaking of edifying TV, I have recently discovered The Newsroom. (Love Aaron Sorkin.) And there he is–Jack–only now he’s Charlie! (Okay, okay: I know that Jack and Charlie are characters and Sam Waterston is the actor, but bear with me here.)

newsroom2This new Jack, whom we now must call “Charlie”, is more mussed-up, more relaxed, more expressive (I never saw Jack McCoy fling his arms out and shout profanity, for example.) And…wait for it…he wears a bow tie. He has changed, and I like him better. He’s so adorable, and yet it’s a teensy bit unnerving: here is the same guy only in a new persona, with a new name. It takes a little getting used to, but I’m committed to going along with it because I guess Jack/Charlie knows what he’s doing. (By the way, I did not take these pictures.)

We all know people who have suddenly changed what they want to be called. Maybe they have, like Jack/Charlie gotten a new job, or grown up, or experienced an epiphany or a calling, or just wanted to try something new.

There is a lot to a name, actually. Think of all those people in the Bible whose names changed when God called them to something new. In the Hebrew tradition, to know someone’s name is a deeply intimate thing, which is why the tradition is to render the name “G-d”, out of respect, as a recognition that the Divine is unknowable.

Whatever true or untrue masks we wear, God already knows each of us by name, by our True Names. Richard Rohr says we can only be our true selves when we stop hiding: from God, ourselves, and at least one other person. We are not all called to be the same, but to be ourselves. Our true selves.


The dark backpack of the soul

Even when the winds assail you and you’re lost out on uncharted sea / the compass of your heart won’t fail you now; your vessel was made for times like these. (Eliza Gilkyson)

CREDO 008A spiritual director once said to me, “Your body never forgets anything.”

This struck a chord in me, and even as a young woman, I appreciated the wisdom her years had given her. In the 30 years since that conversation, the high, clear sound of this wisdom has continued to reverberate, although its tone has deepened with the bass-notes of my own aging.

We know that survivors of trauma and threat often experience never-forgetting in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder. The natural fight-or-flight impulse, designed to protect one from harm, has been damaged, and one may feel stressed or frightened even when (no longer) in danger. This is the dark side of body-memory.

On the other hand, body-memory is not only traumatic. A bit of music, a smell, a sense of deja vu…anything can serve as a trigger. The roasting of beef, the smell of warm clover, the mix of bleach and sour milk: these can be a time-machine to far-gone places and times (along with their feelings.) Suddenly I’m in my grandmother’s kitchen (anticipating), or in a Missouri summer field (lazy), or in my grade-school “all-purpose room” (anxiously watching the clock.) H.G. Wells wrote, in The Time Machine (1895): “There is no difference between Time and any of the three dimensions of Space except that our consciousness moves along it.”

We carry everything we have ever experienced–every conscious and unconscious agony and ecstasy–in this weird, leaky, timey-wimey backpack. It has become customary to talk of the “baggage” we all carry, but I think the backpack is a better metaphor. Everything is all stacked in there, getting heavier on our shoulders as we trudge along. You can’t get to it at all unless you take the backpack off. Even then, you can’t get to the stuff on the bottom until you pull all the top stuff out. And, sometimes after we have been caught in a rainstorm, we have to stop everything and spread it all out in the sun or it will mold.

The compass of the heart knows God as True North. We always, always and regularly, must stop along the path to consult the compass in prayer and contemplation. Often we settle for grabbing a quick glance every once in a while (“Uh-oh! God help me!”) which can be very helpful, but it’s not enough. Stopping and listening to God, calibrating our heart-compass to God’s magnetism… this is the path of wisdom. This is waking up. This is where eternal life starts.

Furthermore (to stretch the metaphor to its breaking-point): when we allow enough time for prayer, the moldy stuff in that backpack can come out during contemplation and be spread out in the sun to dry and freshen. This is good for whatever we carry: memories, old tapes, stuff we picked up but no longer need. A backpack that is clean and dry is way easier to carry than that old moldy crap. Everything we carry, everything our body remembers, can be made clean and become lighter. Everything.

By the way, I’m not talking about going to church. I’m talking about opening our hearts and souls to the light of God. My friend Randall the priest, talking about the value of awakening to our true selves, said, “Mere association with a (severely) limited Christian institution or intellectual assent to dogma or doctrine or making conventional faith statements pale in comparison. Our vast, full and fully human experience is in God.”

The compass of your heart, the backpack of your soul, won’t fail you now.