Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Unprogrammed Quakerism and Music: Complementary Spiritual Disciplines

My Quaker Meeting is an unprogrammed one, and so there is no music in Meeting for Worship unless someone is moved to sing (which seldom happens in our Meeting).  Interestingly enough, almost all of the members and attenders of our Meeting are actively involved in music, and we enthusiastically attend each others’ concerts.  The music we share as a group happens exactly once per year:  we gather early one First Day before Christmas, with instruments and voices, to sing and play Advent and Christmas music for about an hour before then adjourning for our regular Meeting for Worship.

Avid readers of this blog will recall that I myself am serious about music.  I play modern flute, baroque flute, Irish flute, piccolo, recorders, and the occasional crumhorn, and have played with an early music group (medieval, renaissance, and baroque music) and currently play with a community orchestra and participate in two local traditional music regular jam sessions.  I sometimes also join a community concert band, and appear regularly as a soloist for events at the university where I teach.  More recently, I have gotten into Shape Note Singing, and our group also occasionally performs (even though Shape Note Singing groups are not really meant to perform.  The tradition started as singing schools and evolved to become a tradition of participatory community music-making).

So, do I wish I were part of a church where music featured regularly in worship?  Surprisingly, no.  Music for me is an important part of my spiritual discipline, and I love that my Quaker friends understand this and can relate to this, loving and performing music themselves.  But I treasure the silence and the occasional brief messages of unprogrammed worship.  I see my musical life and Quaker life as complementary.

I am glad that we do not live in the time that Quakers frowned on music, and yet, at the same time, I do understand their reservations.  One has to take great care about one’s relationship to music.  My own musical life is very challenging, and spiritual dangers lurk on all sides.  I am normally a quiet and shy person who prefers to stay in the background, and so performing is highly stressful to me.  So, why do I do it?  Despite my shyness, I love music so much and feel a strong pull to share it.  And, yet, I feel I never quite do it justice. 

I long to reach a level where I consistently feel centered while performing, effectively sharing the transcendent beauty of music which I am convinced can give people glimpses of God’s glory.  I have caught fleeting glimpses of this, yes, even in my own performing, but only fleeting glimpses.  I have found more sustained views in attending the performances of truly excellent performers.  But, let me tell you, it is a LOT harder than it looks!  The masters make it look easy, and it does become easy when you are centered and are in the flow, but, first of all, what it takes to attain the level of mastery where that becomes a possibility takes a lot of time, patience, and effort, and, secondly, even that is no guarantee that you can attain that state under pressure of performance.

So, my aspirations, as you can see, are quite high -- perhaps even grandiose, and most certainly flirting on the edges of pride (which you may recall is an especially egregious sin!).  And yet, I sincerely ask, what is the point of aspiring to any less?  Music at its best is holy and sacred.  If your primary motivation is something other than honoring that potential, you miss the whole point, and, worse, risk defiling something that is supposed to be sacred.  So, you have to aspire to showing a glimpse of God.  You have to long for that most of all.

But we are mere humans, mere mortals.  Do we have any real hope of ever being able to fully get out of the way enough to let God’s love fully shine through?

I keep trying.  It demands both perfect faith and perfect humility.  It demands all of you, and yet at the same time it demands that you get completely out of the way.  This paradox is a mystery.  And it is a paradox about life more generally:  Who are we in this world? If reality is ultimately all about God, then why are we here, so often getting in the way?  We supposedly each have gifts to bring, yet we must not succumb to pride.  What is our place, our role?  Who are we to each other, and to God?  “Don’t hide your light under a bushel,” but what if our flames catch the barn on fire?

One of the Advices and Queries of Britain Yearly Meeting is to “live adventurously.”  I was present at the talk that I believe inspired this advice, the inaugural George Gorman Lecture given by Hugh Pyper at a Quaker gathering in England in 1986 ("A Sense of Adventure").  This talk had a profound effect on me then, and the Advice continues to cheer me on today when a tendency towards too much hiding threatens to get the better of me. 

And so when people ask me to perform, I keep saying yes.  It’s part of my spiritual discipline to keep going out to that space that actually quite terrifies me, but fascinates me too, because it holds the potential for one of the most profound kinds of sharing that is possible.  I keep audaciously thinking, “this time I can really do it!  This time I will help them see a glimpse of transcendent reality!” 

And after each performance, I realize I have no idea.  I enter that dazed fog that maybe only performers really know (if they face their experience with full honesty):  I have no idea what that was to anybody else.  On a good day, I may emerge from a performance with memories of moments of feeling centered, memories of shining passages, but I also have painful memories of glitches, of notes that were not quite where they could be, of not quite lining up with the other performers as we had at our best rehearsal, etc.  Even though I know, from attending concerts myself, that others may not notice the glitches, and even the noticeable mistakes do not necessarily harm a performance if the overall musicality is strong enough, it is hard for me not to be haunted mightily by the glitches in my own performance long after the concert.  I try to remind myself that these moments are the “pulled threads” that keep us humble, that help us remember that true perfection is reserved for God alone.  At any rate, I have trained myself to respond graciously to whatever feedback I receive, without betraying any of my own uncertainties: honoring the kind things others say, believing that they mean it. Yet, inside, I know that I know nothing. 

This is just how it is, and maybe how it has to be.  You do your best to be faithful, and then you have to let it go.  We never fully know our effect on the world.  Performance is just one especially concentrated form of this more general truth about our lives.

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