artisanalway


Chancing Chant
December 3, 2011, 4:36 pm
Filed under: life of Spirit, practice | Tags: , , ,

Chanting scripture has changed my prayer life.

Nearly two decades of my work has been about the power of music in its performative mode, yet it always surprises me when music teaches me something new in this mode (by which I mean in its relational, embodied, and multidimensional manner in which insight, unexpectedly, arrives). On the one hand, such things make a scholar feel silly. We, too, get seduced into the shackles of expertise. We lapse into presumption of knowing all about our subject of inquiry that we can forget there’s always more to learn. Especially in what Jean-Luc Marion would call theology, as opposed to theology—apophatic nod to God in the first, cataphatic nod to God in the second. (Yes, I want you to look up those words).

On the other hand, these things give more credence and faith in what we already know, at least if what we’ve written/learned is true. If it’s true, in other words, it will continue to lead into new learnings. And so, in this case, I’m pleased to be surprised once again. My basic argument has been that music will forever extend the boundaries of theological knowledge, theological discipline, precisely because its manner of teaching/learning is performative—primarily relational, embodied in oral-aural form, multidimensional in self and community, so never to be written entirely in stone where it would become simply a fossil. Therefore, if theologically-curious folks are really interested in knowing more about what Spirit is about, they should do so in the performative mode of music. It will confirm and refine any theological knowledge you think you have.

But…what’s all this about, you ask, 2-3 paragraphs in? This is a scholar’s befuddlement, sharing that chanting scripture has altered my prayer life for good.

A bit of backdrop, to set the stage. While attending the American Academy of Religion meeting in San Francisco, I took Sunday morning “off” as Christian Sabbath, identifying a Eucharist service I could attend on the early side of the morning. Two public busses and a bit of a walk later, I found myself in a community of dancing saints—those living and stewarding a liturgy of Word and Sacrament, those ‘written’ or painted on the rotunda of the church building showing ways of loving God in loving neighbor, the world over. It was a blessed morning—though also a bit of a pain the derriere, which I won’t go into—the conclusion of which was being invited into the community’s practice of weekday morning prayer. I received the prayer book, a book of musical liturgical offerings, an anointing of hands & spirit to then be on my way.  It seemed such an extraordinary invitation that I actually accepted it. What a preposterous idea—to pray at 11 a.m. most weekday mornings with a community in whose worship I had been nourished one Sunday morning in November. So be it.

The liturgy is a familiar one, at least for a Presbyterian who had been shaped as a closet-Episcopalian for nearly ten years: opening sentences, opening song, contemplative silence, sung Psalms, silence, canticle, scripture, prayers, closing song, closing sentences and benediction. The Gospel reading comes with attention to the Daily Lectionary, revised standard version (I think we call it). Whatever text for the day now arrives into my e-mail Inbox from www.dailylectionary.org. Convenient, for all kinds of reasons. What is unfamiliar is the chanting.

This community’s worship practice might best be described—granting I only know a glimpse/sensation of it—as ecumenical-intertraditional, Eastern orthodoxy in contemporary voice. Incense was ‘lit’ at the sacristy. Bells open and close times of silence. Vestments—though they presented with a sense of Ti-Die hippiedom—distinguish leaders. Actual ordained clergy are difficult to identify. An open-hearted community of lay leadership this is. The life of the liturgy, as I experienced it, came through what they call “paperless music,” intoned and led singing in which pitch is determined on the spot and everyone really does sing. Those who are obviously musical, in strong voice, and those whose gifting does not seem to include musicality, also in strong voice. Because it is for praise of God, not aesthetic limitation. “Paperless music” places the performative aspect of music, shared, before all else. Just like I have written. Just like I learned in my own journey of theological formation. This community allows its liturgy to be shaped primarily by the performative, by the participation of its Friends.

So weekday mornings has found me in a quiet space with some privacy, entering into this liturgical practice, feeling silly while I sing the opening sentences (both parts), sing the O-Antiphon of the week, sing the Psalms. I’ve even experimented with chanting the Gospel, as invited by the order of worship to do so. You know what I’m learning? The ancient ones of our Christian tradition were on to something mysterious, wise, counter-intuitive to us today.

The liturgy itself invites the leader to sing in telling places. When asking us to pray for our enemies. When inviting us to forgive as we’ve been forgiven. Places of highest vulnerability, deep woundedness, spiritual resistance. We sing, with shaky voices out of tune, perhaps out of synch with what God really intends. We offer voices into vulnerable space.

Chanting the Psalms has been the most remarkable for me, however. As long as I can remember, I have felt dissonance in reading the Psalms. Sometimes the poetry seemed flattened in the tools (historical-critical, exegetical) I was asked to bring to them. Sometimes the language refused to be flattened and was simply violent, full of lament, raw. Difficult to let in during a devotional period of listening. Following this liturgical practice, I began to realize I’m finally opening to the Psalms as they were intended, perhaps Intended. Songs. To be sung. Companioned by others. And it’s changed how I receive scripture as well.

I’ve increasingly wrestled over the years with how to read my own Scriptures, mostly because they seem so abused, so often, that I hesitate to join my efforts into the abuse. I can only take about 1-2 sentences at a time when most of my communities require whole chunks, pericopes (pah-RICK-oh-peez) we call them, in which historical legitimacy or validity may be argued. I’ve been choking for years on that much Word, eaten that quickly. And the Psalms in particular. They are simply too vivid to read quickly, within liturgy or for my own sustenance.

Except when they are sung, I’m learning. I’ve sung eight days’ worth of Psalms, learning the chant-style of this practice community, and the Psalms are going in. I feel them. I sense them. I don’t understand them but I am nourished by them. Eight days. Only eight days and I found myself weeping this morning, encountering my own scripture for the first time in a long time. It’s like it was an old friend, finally finding the window my soul had been scraping at for years.

So what if chanting scripture is not some Catholic or Orthodox practice we Protestants needed to excise in order to be true to sola scriptura, sola fides, sola gratis, but an ancient wisdom with shaping force for spiritual maturity and path to new life? What if the Wisdom of God, playing in the face of the Creator for as long as there’s been Life, comes into embodied form in us when we offer our voices in prayer, praise, and word in this fashion? Is it worth it to you to feel silly, feeling you can’t sing, yet chant Holy Writ until it nourishes you past your mind, your theology, into Wisdom somehow intimately inside you?

I dare you. 🙂 Chanting will change your prayer life, for good.

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Literature, Stories, and ‘Magicians’
October 9, 2011, 10:00 pm
Filed under: identity, Uncategorized | Tags: , , ,

Sometimes those who ‘authorize’ transformation are authors themselves. Let me share a story of one of my own…

I have been frightened of ‘literature’ since I was fifteen. The word conjures up images of poetry recitation and the public humiliation of my 9th-grade self, by the teacher, no less. ‘Literature’ unearths self-induced fears of incompetence and artistic ignorance. In my experience, the classics of English or American literature tend to be those poems, novels, and short stories whose metaphors I rarely perceive correctly, whose prose lacks the drive of today’s more familiar, media-saturated plots & pacing, and whose overall contribution to human culture continues to be a point of debate between specialists. Call something a classic of literature—English, American, Turkish, whatever—and I’m sure to find a way to avoid reading it. Until I ‘met’ my magician, Azar Nafisi.

Nafisi is an Iranian-born, university professor specializing in Western (& Persian) literature and now Iranian politics. She’s most well-known for her “memoir in books,” Reading Lolita in Tehran (RandomHouse, 2003), which shares truths and fiction across several years of her life in Iran, before-during-and-after the Revolution. As of 2008, Nafisi became an American citizen and now teaches and writes as a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. I call her my ‘magician’ relying upon her own sense of the word, with reference to an elusive fellow she first names Professor R, then ‘her magician’ forever afterward.

‘He’ was a fine arts/drama professor and writer who resigned his teaching-post in protest of Revolutionary curricular reform. He was elusive figure, welcoming her every week or so for tea and chocolates, but always aloof, unpredictable, challenging. For Nafisi, he was this kind of companion who welcomed, accompanied and challenged her very best self as teacher, artist, and writer. She didn’t always know he was shaping her, nor was she aware of how she was inviting and shaping him. They simply met to talk about their lives, ideas…and drink tea, eat chocolates. I have been blessed with several figures in my life who remind me of Professor R and Azar Nafisi. For our purposes, her magic has been to open my eyes and mind to ‘literature’ and its unsuspecting power to transform our minds, ears, spirits.

Apparent in the very title, Reading Lolita in Tehran posits from the start that context matters, even changes the work of literature, for any reading of a so-called ‘classic.’ Tehran marks the place on the planet where a novella is being read. Gone is Nabokov’s ‘classic’ as a reified, objective thing, guarded and legitimated by experts and those allowed within their coteries. Nabokov’s Lolita, in this case, has also become Nafisi’s Lolita, hers and her students’ Lolita, the reading(s) of Nabokov’s text within a poignant setting of Tehran, Iran, amidst the Revolution and afterwards.  In other words, every ‘classic’ needs its reader to exist anew, off the shelf, as a continuing ‘voice’ in the project of a vibrant humanity. For the first time, I heard that ‘literature’ could need me and my imagination if it wanted to say what it had to say.

Nafisi’s chosen genre of writing—memoir—complements the first observation about context. Organized around works and themes of four different authors or characters—Nabokov, Gatsby, James, and Austen—Reading Lolita in Tehran illustrates on every page the intimate learning possible when literature breathes life into a person’s narrative or story. No longer is literature an aloof voice of ages past with its imagery and artistry impossible to decipher correctly. Literature becomes the intimate marriage of an author’s and characters’ voices-in-situation, experienced by a reader in her communities, and then—if one does the reflective work—given transformative significance hospitable to others beyond the specific author.

Nafisi has done the reflective work, and with her tutelage, I began to see symbols, themes, images within her chosen classics come to life in my own narrative. I devoured Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby while reading Nafisi’s volume. It made portions of my narrative come to mind, newly sensitized to implications and connections with my own steeped history of a decade ago, in an institution of material privilege and relational poverty. I’m learning to listen in ‘literature’ for legitimate touchstones between author’s/characters/situations and my own life.

I suspect many more learnings could be articulated, if time were taken for such things. For now, this page-prose offers a bit of one of my own ‘authorizers.’ Nafisi’s ‘magic’ of renewal and recovery in my spirit was no mean feat, given my long ambivalence and avoidance of anything internally or externally professed as a classic of literature. As she notes herself, though, such magic is never solely the magician’s, but signals an avid learner open to being evoked or conjured anew. “Does every magician, every genuine one,” she asks, “…evoke the hidden conjurer in us all, bringing out the magical possibilities and potentials we did not know existed?” (p. 337).

I tender my heartfelt thanksgiving here for the voice and vocation of Azar Nafisi, an author whose voice challenges my own, and a teacher who showed it is possible to teach transformative living amidst the delights and discomforts of ‘literature.’ I also smile with appreciation for the wisdom to receive her teaching and the challenge for my narrative & writing.  Perhaps even my 9th-grade self will have new learnings to share in the days, months, and years to come.

Will yours, as you read and listen to the ‘classics,’ in print and those living in your journey?