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Easter 2012 @ St. John’s Detroit – Canon of Mass (by StJohnsPriest)

I was thinking about this Communion service earlier and went hunting it on YouTube. I have tried to start the playback just before the Agnus Dei, which is the bit I want my readers to hear, but if you’re curious about the kind of liturgy I lived with between 1998 and 2008, roughly, watch the whole thing. The communion service is Noble in F.

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So yesterday I had an experience I’ve been waiting for the last thirty years or so. I heard the music of California in the far future as imagined by Ursula Le Guin and Todd Barton.

When Le Guin first published her book Always Coming Home, a vision of life in the Napa Valley centuries after the end of the world as we know it, it included a cassette tape, “Music and Poetry of the Kesh”. The book and tape together cost what was then a stupendous sum, something like $25–more than I could afford to spend out of my own pocket, even if I could find a bookstore that carried it. I daresay my mother vetoed buying it for me just as she vetoed buying me a Batmobile when I was in kindergarten. (Nope, still not over that.) So I purchased the mass-market paper edition as soon as I saw it, but I never had a chance to hear the music.

Thanks to the magic of mp3 downloads, it’s playing in my ears right now. The instrumental pieces sound rather California New Age, like something you’d hear on an acoustic-only episode of Hearts of Space, but the vocal pieces sound, to me, convincingly tribal. They are sung in Le Guin’s invented language, and they sound to me like the music of people for whom making music, singing, participating in music, is the default; it is music which belongs to the singers, the instrumentalists, rather than to specialists, experts, professionals, pop stars. It is not so much a performance as a participation: Work song, lullaby, sacred chant. I like it. I like it very much.

(And if you’re interested in listening, you can find samples or buy the whole album here.)

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Things I am serious about:

  • religion
  • books
  • music
  • birds
  • writing
  • marriage

Things I am not serious about but I love them:

  • Star Trek in all its forms and variation. My favorite series are the cheesy campy Original and Deep Space Nine, which boldly went into issues of religion where no Trek had gone before.
  • Doctor Who. I was mad about Tom Baker before David Tennant was even born; I’ve seen all of the current series and huge chunks of the original.
  • The BBC’s Merlin. Swords, pretty boys handsome men, and John Hurt as the voice of a snarky, cranky CGI dragon. Oh my.

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I sang at my husband’s church this morning as part of a quintet; together with a better soprano who has been suffering from bronchitis, we made one big soprano. Most of what we sang was Gregorian chant, along with two simple Tudor anthems by Christopher Tye and Healy Willan’s Missa de Sancta Maria Magdalena, a service known and loved by Episcopalians all over the U.S. and Canada. While our retired associate priest tackled the doctrine in his sermon, I chewed my fingernails and came up with my own thoughts.

First of all, forget everything you’ve ever heard about the doctrine of the Trinity. Forget all the limping analogies; forget all the fancy terms like ousia and hypostatis and perichoresis, substantia and persona and circumincessio and circuminsessio (though they are fun words and I like to throw them around). Forget any idea that the Trinity is something we have to explain, something we have to understand, or even something we believe. The Trinity is actually something that we do.

When Christians pray, we pray to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. The Trinity is active, is embodied, in our particular mode of prayer. Every collect in the Prayerbook ends with some variation on “through Jesus Christ our Lord”; it might help us to remember the Trinitarian reality if they followed that phrase with “in the Holy Spirit”. We pray in the Spirit because, as Paul says, the Spirit prays in us.

Why do we pray this way? Well, yes, we do it because we are taught to do it. But it reflects an experience in which God is simultaneously Out There, infinitely mysterious, utterly transcendent to our understanding; and With Us, incarnate in Christ, manifest in our neighbor, traceable in creation like a director in his film, intimately present to all the details of our ordinary lives; and Within Us, the very Breath of our life and the groaning of our prayer, the self that loves and prays.

What this means is that God, the Trinitarian God, the Christian God, is not merely an isolated ego, one that is bigger and stronger and smarter than all the other isolated egos in a universe full of them. If that were the case, than the God of the Old Testament, the Father of Jesus, would be no more than the biggest and baddest of a whole line of sky-and-storm king-and-father gods, a bigger bully than Zeus or Thor or Baal (no disrespect to any of those deities intended). God is not an ego; God is not one object in a universe of objects; God is not even a supreme Subject to whom we are the subordinate objects. God is a Unity that is also a Community. Human beings, and through us all created beings, find their unity, their wholeness, through participation in a community of equals, and ultimately through participation in God, or what Christian theology calls theosis.

You don’t hear much talk about theosis, at least not in the Western Church. In the East they have never forgotten that the whole point of the Incarnation and of our redemption and sanctification is that we are to become divinised, godlike, to participate in divinity not by our own nature or on our own hook, but as a free gift of God. We’re not in this game to become Nice People who play it safe; we’re designed to be gods. The catch, however, is that the requirement of theosis is kenosis: The self-emptying which Christ makes possible for us through his Incarnation and then through his Passion. The divine Son, the eternal Word, empties self to become human; then the man Jesus, a human being like us, empties self to undergo one of the most painful and humiliating deaths ever devised by human cruelty. He hits bottom, or as the Apostles’ Creed puts it, he descends into hell. And then he rises again, changed, but himself, and alive, fully alive. His trajectory is also ours, right back into the heart of the Godhead.

And just in case you think I’m making that up, here’s the Second Letter of Peter to persuade you otherwise:

By his divine power the Lord has given us everything we need for life and godliness through the knowledge of the one who called us by his own honor and glory. 4 Through his honor and glory he has given us his precious and wonderful promises, that you may share the divine nature and escape from the world’s immorality that sinful craving produces.

That’s 2 Peter 1:3-4 in the Common English Bible translation. The King James Version of that emboldened phrase is “partakers of the divine nature”. Eugene Peterson’s The Message renders it as “participation in the life of God”. There it is, right in the Bible.

God empties self; God shares self; we empty self; we participate in God’s self. The Trinity is the prayer we make, the life we live in community, the dance of our divinisation (perichoresis means “dancing around in a circle”). I have an inkling that the Buddhist idea of shunyata, the doctrine that everything is impermanent, nothing is an isolated self-existent object, everything exists in interrelationship, is somehow related to the doctrine of the Trinity and to kenosis, but I promise to hold forth on that another day.

To wind up, here’s a performance of the Introit we sang at Mass this morning, though we sang it in English. Thanks to Chantblog for the link.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all evermore. Amen.

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When I was about eight years old, my mother ordained that I should go to the little Episcopal church that was only a block away from our house. In former days I had gone to a Lutheran church with my sister, but since getting married she had ceased to go to church at all, let alone to be available to take her little sister along. So my mother talked to an elderly neighbor of ours and arranged that she would pick me up on Sundays and take me to church, the Church of the Advent. You might notice two things about this arrangement: I didn’t have any particular say in the matter, and my mother did not go to church herself.

Fortunately for all parties, I soon decided that I liked going to an Episcopal church. Everything about the weekly high-church communion service, which was called a Mass, took hold on my imagination: The candles and incense, the flowing silk vestments of the priest, the stately language of the prayers, and the music, bravely sung by a small all-female volunteer choir. Two years later, I joined that choir and continued to sing for most of the next decade.

I am old enough that the Prayerbook and Hymnal which were to form my spirituality indelibly were the 1928 Book of Common Prayer and the Hymnal 1940, the products of a church that still called itself “Protestant Episcopal”. I have often said, only half-jokingly, that the Prayerbook taught me to use subordinate clauses, punctuate, and conjugate the English verb in both singular and plural. Almost all of those traits can be seen in the Collect for Purity which began every Mass, and which I can easily type from memory:

Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

I learned about language from the Prayerbook, about the beauty and flexibility of the English language. When I encountered Donne, Herbert, and Milton as a precociously young college student, I was more prepared for them than I might otherwise have been because the Prayerbook had made their language mine.

The Prayerbook taught me how to read, how to write, and how to pray. The 1928 book gave me the collect, a literary form as tight and succinct as a sonnet or a haiku; the 1979 book, which was introduced into our parish when I was a teenager, gave me the Psalms. The Hymnal 1940 taught me how to listen and how to sing. It was and is an amazing compendium of Western church music, from Sarum plainsong to Negro spirituals, from Lutheran chorales harmonized by Bach to sentimental nineteenth-century tunes whose composers are justly forgotten, with a generous selection of the great composers and hymn-writers of the Anglican tradition: Thomas Tallis, Orlando Gibbons, William Croft, Charles Wesley, Isaac Watts. We sang Gibbons and Tallis, “O sacred head” and “Were you there?” in my little church. I learned to hear and understand modal music, and to this day my ear is basically modal. I learned to stand up straight, hold up my hymnal, and sing over my music, not into it.

Thanks to the Hymnal 1940, and to friends at church who had a passion for English cathedral choirs and their repertoire, when I met my husband by auditioning for a choir he directed, I had exactly the sort of voice and training he wanted: A soprano who understand modal tuning and sang with a straight tone. I was an English choirboy in the body of a twenty-four-year old American girl. (To this day, if you ask my husband how we met, he will smirk and reply, “She auditioned”.) But there was one more book in my childhood that had a huge formative influence on me spiritually. It happened to be a book about Roman Catholic nuns.

Rumer Godden is best known for a novel about nuns in India, Black Narcissus, but that wasn’t the book I read. It was her other novel, about an abbey of Benedictine nuns in England, In This House of Brede. Inspired by the memoirs of Dame Laurentia McLachlan of Stanbrook Abbey, this remarkable novel tells the story of Philippa Talbot, a widow with a high post in government who gives it up, at the age of forty, to become a cloistered contemplative nun. The reader is plunged along with her into the ancient rhythms of monastic life as laid down by St. Benedict some fourteen hundred years ago: Short sleep, plain food, hard dull work, and hours and hours of prayer, both in private and in the great sung daily offices which Benedict called the opus Dei, the work of God.

My first introduction to the book was through that strange artifact, a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book. The volume you see on the left contained not only Godden’s novel, but The King’s Pleasure by Norah Lofts, about Katherine of Aragon, Coretta Scott King’s memoir of her life with her husband, and a couple of other “condensed” titles. I read Mrs. King’s book and Lofts’ novel, but I read about Dame Philippa and her sister nuns over and over.

Then one day I discovered the original, unaltered version of the book on the shelves of my local library branch. My tolerant and wonderful librarians had no problem with my checking out adult books, and that was just one of many books which I borrowed repeatedly to read and re-read. Decades later, working at the central library of the system, I came upon the book on the discards-for-sale shelf; I bought it immediately, took it home, and discovered it was, in fact, one of the two copies formerly owned by my old branch. I have it to this day.

I am happy to say that the book is still in print and can be purchased through Amazon.com. Godden’s account of a community of women, engaged in singing prayers and loving God while also eating, cleaning up, taking care of their sick, and running a print shop and weaving vestments for sale left me with a lifelong love of the monastic life, of daily prayer based on the Psalms, and of the delicious trivia of Latin words, parts of the habit, Gregorian chant. The most important thing I learned, however, was simply that one could be a deeply religious person without being a fanatic or a freak. Philippa and her sisters, committed to their odd lifestyle in the midst of a modest English town, are neither saints nor neurotics; they hide secrets, bear grudges, struggle, fall and get up again. And they relate to one another, and to the small circle of men who contact their enclosed world, with love, honesty, forgiveness, integrity.

Another thing I learned, which has never been clear to me until very recently, is that In This House of Brede showed me that a book about women, a book about female characters, could be as interesting as any book about men. And while a book about women who style themselves brides of Christ might not exactly pass the Bechdel test, it’s a book about women that doesn’t revolve around sex, romance, attempts to get married, attempts to get divorced, having children, or even going shopping. Godden even handles the tricky issue of inappropriate bonds between the nuns, portraying a sensual yet not quite erotic attachment between Dame Maura, in charge of the abbey’s music, and young Sister Cecily, a brilliantly gifted singer. When Dame Maura oversteps good boundaries and her feelings frighten the younger nun, she accepts the Abbess’s suggestion that she go to a sister house in Canada where the nuns need help restoring their practice of the chant, returning five years later to a mature and stable Cecily who can handle their feelings wisely.

Another thing I love about this novel is that the male characters, while few in number, both stand up to the women as characters and relate to them with respect. Philippa, the protagonist, is supported by the friendship of a former male co-worker; Abbess Catherine is refreshed by her encounter with a famous sculptor who creates a new altar and a statue of Our Lady for the abbey. It’s no surprise that the reviews on Amazon are hugely enthusiastic; the only negative one is a critique of the current edition rather than of the book itself. One reviewer actually says that if he or she lived in the world of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, they would memorize and preserve this novel.

Spiritual guidance from books is not, as I would learn later, an exclusively Anglican or even exclusively Christian experience. But the formative influences of these three books is probably why, after trying many other spiritual paths, I am an Anglican again, today.

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Current Reading

  • The Forge of Tubal Cain by Ann Finnin
  • The Roebuck in the Thicket by Evan John Jones, Robert Cochrane, and Michael Howard
  • The Passion of Mary Magdalene by Elizabeth Cunningham
  • Kissing the Limitless by Thorn Coyle

Current Viewing

  • David Suchet as Poirot
  • Sherlock Holmes with Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwick
  • Deep Space Nine, season five
  • Bones, current episodes
  • Batman Beyond, season one
  • Secrets of the Dead
  • American Experience
  • Nova

Current Listening

  • medieval and troubadour stuff, principally Ensemble Unicorn
  • Wanda Landowska playing Bach
  • Brazilian stuff on Last.fm courtesy of my husband
  • blues on Pandora, right now

Current Practice

  • New Hermetics Grounding & Centering
  • Middle Pillar
  • sitting meditation
  • defining goals
  • pore breathing with sunshine (when the sun is visible)

Special Mention

  • the “Trials and Tribble-ations” episode of Deep Space Nine. Conceived as their thirtieth-anniversary tribute to Trek, this episode sent the main cast back in time to the Kirk era to prevent Arne Darvin, Klingon spy, from enhancing his sabotage of the grain on Deep Space Station K-7 with a bomb emplanted in one of the tribbles.  The actors slid into those kicky ’60s uniforms and hair-do’s (Dax got a beehive) and wandered around going, “Wow, we’re on the Enterprise!”  The tech crew seamlessly interwove new footage with the original episode and digitally inserted new actors into old scenes, so that Dax gets to check out Spock’s ass and say he’s even handsomer in person, and O’Brien and Bashir join the line-up of crewmembers getting chewed out by Kirk after the brawl with the Klingons.  It’s a wonderfully funny ep that unashamedly loves the original show.
  • Pandora Radio.  I know this makes me terminally uncool, but I have much better luck getting Pandora to play me music I like than I do with Last.fm.
  • I am completely addicted to my weekly doses of Poirot and Holmes.  If I had discovered Jeremy Brett as a teenager, I would have been *so* hot for him.
  • the Middle Ages.  Yes, they had no sanitation, lots of emphasis on sin in their religion, wars, plagues, etc.  But they also had brilliant colors, spiritual joy, and bawdy songs.  In short, they knew how to party down.

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