Saturday, March 26, 2016

An Especially Good Friday

Not even sky-high pollen counts could keep this Episcopalian away from Good Friday services.  St. James', Marietta, GA did it right:  nave stripped of candles, vestments, and cushions; silent prayers and somber readings from Isaiah and John; slow procession with a human-sized cross during recitation of the reproaches; chanting of tunes, from ancient tones to the rich spiritual that asks "Were you there?" with the answer implied: "It causes me to tremble."  We left in darkness, our tower bell tolling thirty three times for Jesus.

Yet every Good Friday for me is a return to what I experienced at St. James' in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1982.   [Photo; Good Friday, St. James' Jackson] To borrow an image from an Anglican novel I read at the time, Robertson Davies' The Rebel Angels, the Episcopal church "is not a river to be fished, it's an ocean in which to bathe, and give [ourselves] up to the tides and currents" (Davies 62).

Davies' character was talking about a university education, but I can identify with the idea of full immersion Episcopalianism.  That's what I experienced for the first time that Good Friday.

Since Palm Sunday, I'd been at church nearly every day for a week by the time Good Friday came around. Singing in the choir, I was stunned to silence by our rector Charles Kiblinger's tight-lipped efficiency stripping the altar at the end of the Maundy Thursday service.  For the next day's noon service, two upper-middle-aged tenors McCarrell Ayers and Joe Powell, Sr. took turns singing the words of the Lord in Vittoria's setting of the Reproaches:
I did open the sea before thee: and thou has opened my side with a spear.... I did give thee to drink the water of life from the rock: and thou has given me to drink but gall and vinegar....  I did raise thee on high with great power: and thou has hanged me upon the gibbet of the Cross.
We sang the refrain, "O My people, what have I done unto thee?  Or wherein have I wearied thee? Testify against me," and, in Greek, "have mercy on us." I remember the soloists' distinctive voices to this day, with the emotion of that Renaissance piece.

Joe and his wife Linda invited me after the service to a restaurant at "The Quarter," several cuts above the usual fast food I could afford in those days early in my teaching career.  While we laughed and had serious conversation with our wine, outside were torrential rain, black sky, and thunder that shook the skylight.  I'd taught the Powells' daughter Emily, and I sang with Joe in choir; but my parents were hundreds of miles away, and the Powells took care of me for years.  Joe got me involved in Education for Ministry, a four-year theology extension program of The University of the South; Linda broadened my idea of "religious" literature to include Davies, Updike, and agnostic Iris Murdoch.  Linda covered her refrigerator with cartoons and quips, including one to the effect that true evangelism is to live one's life in such a way that anyone seeing you must believe in miracles.  Linda's own family wrote about her better than I could do in their tribute after her death in 2013:
She will be remembered for her formidable intellect, wit, and devotion. She lived her faith by being part of the daily life of so many people over the course of her 80 years, making each of those lives richer and better. Friends will miss a seat at her table with a full pot of tea, a view of the tranquil setting of her home she tended so lovingly, and her, perched eagerly waiting to listen with care and good counsel. (See more at:
Neither Joe nor Linda, nor the rector, nor anyone else I knew well at St. James' had been "cradle Episcopalians."  This was a peculiarity of the church in Jackson, where Bishop Duncan Grey Sr. had made a stand against racial segregation long before the rest of the state was forced to fall in line.  Joe and Linda, along with my principal Dorothy Kitchings, had lent their names to a public letter against segregation; for their stand, Joe and Linda had literally been kicked down the stairs of their Methodist church. 

The Powells, always challenging but never judgmental, showed me first, and best, that being religious didn't have to do with correct belief.

Now, thirty-four years later, the Episcopal church is for me a presence the way ocean is for a coastal town.  No, I don't go "fishing" for particular doctrines or beliefs.  Rather, the church envelopes my life with music grown familiar over decades, stories continued day by day across the years, beliefs enacted in rituals week-by-week, liturgical seasons, fiction and essays growing out of the tradition, and, always present in memory as an ocean's waves are present in sound, the Powells' hospitality.  

Davies, Robertson.  The Rebel Angels.  New York: Viking Press, 1981.  See my other blogposts about Robertson Davies' works.

St. James' Episcopal Church. Facebook page

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Robertson Davies' "What's Bred in the Bone"
Still Works Alchemy

Completing his apprenticeship to a restorer of ancient paintings, young Arthur Cornish paints an original triptych in 16th-century manner, marrying all the opposing forces of his life story, related in previous chapters, with his depiction of "The Marriage at Cana."Art experts, stumped by this apparently ancient painting in original style, call its anonymous artist "the Alchemical Master," unaware how close they are to the truth, for Cornish has melded much that was sad and painful into something beautiful, lead into gold.

Davies poses an interesting question via another clever art forger when critics who had loved the forgery turn on him and declare the work worthless. "What delighted you? The magic of a great name? The magic of the past?  Or was it the picture before your eyes?" (353)   Beyond the aesthetic question, there's an interesting religious and psychological angle on the story, that Cornish has drawn on mythologies of the past (alchemy, Christian images) to construct a "personal myth" from the elements of his own life.

Thirty years after I first read Cornish's story, the wonder of the novel What's Bred in the Bone still is this imaginary painting, focus of all Robertson Davies' far-flung, even outrageous, plot lines.  Now, as then, I'm fascinated by the way that Davies collected notes about anything that struck his fancy, composing novels in triptychs when the note cards reached a critical mass. As it happens, on this day when I'm thinking how such a confluence of ideas is itself such a great pleasure and uplifter of spirits, I've experienced a confluence of stories through the modern medium of network radio.                           
First, I heard striking stories on the podcast Snap Judgement, episode 706 "Man in the Mirror."  A soprano begins an audio diary at the start of hormone treatments for gender-reassignment, and the voice we first hear singing "Can you hear me?"  deepens through a rough patch of huskiness and voice breaks, until we have a satisfying, lovely duet of the woman's voice and the man's, an octave apart.   

Then, a Brooklyn storyteller sets a different scene:  one "Joe" in his flannel and workboots drinking Bud at 10 a.m., one self-satisfied college-educated storyteller working the bar in her family's establishment, and a hapless Chinese food delivery man who overcharges her; she cringes when "Joe" gets involved, only to hear him speak calmly, slowly, in Chinese.  The story flips her expectations (and ours).  

The program ended with a fiction about a virtual orphan caring for her younger sisters at the time of the London Blitz, the stained glass window placed in their care by the local church, and the apparition of a figure from that window, a guardian Man of Glass. 

The next program brought us actor/sleight-of-hand artist Ricky Jay telling about the subject of his new historical book, Matthias Buchinger: The Greatest German Living.  A little over twenty-four inches tall, born without hands or feet, this late 17th century polymath performed skillful tricks on stage and produced a self portrait comprised of Psalms and the Lord's Prayer in tiny calligraphy, etched backwards for a printing press.  

Both a 16th century dwarf and a picture made from tiny calligraphic lines figure in Davies' story of Francis Cornish.  As a young friend of the small town's mortician, Cornish had sketched the body of a suicide, the town's much-humiliated dwarf.  In a kind of artistic alchemy, he elevates that pathetic man to status of an icon as model for a faux-Renaissance portrait of a court jester.  Cornish also composes a line drawing of the Crucifixion from calligraphic lines from a Gospel passion narrative.

Can I, like Robertson Davies, pull all these strands into a single statement?  Something about the wonder of life might do, or what lies under the surface of our perceptions.  Davies' own idea about alchemy seems to fit all the stories, but, then again, also describes what I believe God to be doing in our world since the earliest days of Scripture.

I'm satisfied, for now, to record the stories for possible use, later. 

Davies, Robertson.  What's Bred in the Bone.  New York:  Elizabeth Sifton Books, Viking, 1985.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Stefon Harris and Sonic Creed: Jazz Metaphor

From the stage of Atlanta's Spivey Hall last night, Stefon Harris told us "I have to believe in what I'm doing to let it take me away from my wife and son," and that's why he calls his band Sonic Creed.   He'd flown wife and son from Newark for the weekend, to be with Daddy and to celebrate the boy's seventh birthday.  That was by no means the only moment of "awww" in the concert.

Number by number, with a few words between pieces, Harris developed a metaphorical view of what we were seeing. Generous introductions of each musician were part of his message:  Musicians of different generations and backgrounds "problem-solved" every second to redeem "failures" on the fly.  The band included Mike Moreno on guitar, James Francies on piano, Joshua Crumbly on bass, and Jonathan Pinson on drums.

We watched the process of problem-solving as he picked up his mallets at the vibraphone to develop a long improvisation from three notes that we shouted out to him (F, C, Bb).  From those three notes, he launched music pieces in waves, sometimes with a "ha!" or a "huh?!"  Eventually, his band mates got in on the act, and the song morphed into a raucous arrangement of the 1920s standard "Bye Bye Blackbird."

Aside from the beauty of tone that Harris draws from tapping, slamming, and massaging the keys of the vibraphone, Harris's red-topped mallets gave us a way to see how he developed patterns up and down the keyboard.

For an encore, he brought sensitivity and joy to a standard that he says he just learned last year, "I Fall in Love Too Easily," ending on a soft slide of the mallet from one tone to the next, a vibraphone sigh.  Ah!