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Monday, April 02, 2012

My grandmother's guitarra

Palm Sunday, the beginning of what we Christians call 'Holy Week', brought the comfort of the familiar and, along with it, a few 'amusements' and 'wonderments' about the state of the church.

It was a loooong service. Then again, we started at 10 AM in the Parish Hall with the Blessing of the Palms, the procession into the church, a pretty dramatic reading of The Passion (Well, for Episcopalians. And, the one who portrayed Jesus was very dramatic - for just about anyone.), the Bishop's sermon (only 14 minutes - which is brief for him - about the generosity of the Cross and the Christian way of life), followed by 16 confirmations/receptions/reaffirmations (Whew!), followed by The Eucharist.

The music was stellar.

We left the church at 11:50 AM and, after exchanging pleasantries with the bishop and our rector, made a beeline for our favorite breakfast spot - The Robin Hood - and wolfed down some omelets and strong coffee before tending to some afternoon chores around the house.

There was much to appreciate about the service. I love the familiarity of the liturgy and music. I love getting my own palm branch and especially love that it is so crisp and firm at the beginning of the service but hangs limp and defeated as I walk out of the church at the end of the service. I love the tension of singing "All Glory, Laud and Honor" as we enter the church and "O Sacred Head Sore Wounded" and "Ah, Holy Jesus" after Communion.

I love all the pomp and circumstances of the church. It's events like Palm Sunday and Holy Week and Easter that I love most and can't imagine not having church in my life.

I was thinking on these things, pondering them in my heart, as I went about my afternoon chores, one of which caused me to take down my grandmother's guitarra and find a new 'safe home' for it.

I've been thinking about my grandmother's guitarra portuguesa as an image of the church.

She played and sang so beautifully that, when I close my eyes, I can still hear her voice and the sound of the guitarra. She very carefully taught me to play it and to sing some of her favorite Fados.

I loved it. I loved the playing. I loved the singing. I loved the tradition. I loved that I was one of several grandchildren entrusted with carrying that tradition and music the next generation.

I don't sing Fado anymore. I remember the tune but not many of the words.

The music is beautiful and deeply meaningful but even though the themes are timeless, the songs don't translate well into today's culture or concerns.  Even my love for and passion about the guitarra portugesa and the particular history of my grandmother's guitarra and the music she played have not been enough to inspire any of my children or grandchildren to take any interest in either.

Watch keys or Preston tuners of the guitarra portugesa
I don't play the guitarra anymore. Can't. Age has dried the wood to the point where it will not sustain the tension of the 12 steel strings. The "watch-key" or "Preston" tuners are all stiff and hard to turn where they are not so loose I fear they may fall out.

It's a shell of what once was. Anyone else would look at it and toss it out but I can't.

Nobody's fault, really. Oh, maybe I could have taken better care of the wood over the years but the experts - "guitarreiros", or guitar makers - I have taken it to say that it wasn't really built to stand the test of time.

A guitarra is just the instrument, they say. The music is what lives on. The memory is what's redemptive.

Is the church become like my grandmother's guitarra?

I have already confessed my deep and abiding love of the litugies and the music which Grandmother Church carefully teaches her children and passes down to the generations, but the church, after all, is just the vehicle - the instrument - of Jesus.  Or, maybe not even Jesus but his followers who claim the high calling of being "The Body of Christ".

Liturgy and music are but the vehicles of the memory of our redemption. "That which is essential," said the fox to the Little Prince, "is invisible to the eye."

As I puttered and fussed around the house yesterday afternoon, I remembered the very first Palm Sunday I held as Chaplain at the University of Lowell. It was four o'clock in the afternoon. I thought I might get lucky and, maybe, just maybe, gather a dozen or so students and/or faculty who had, perhaps, slept through the plethera of morning services held in the great variety of churches in the Greater Lowell Area - from several Roman Catholic to Greek Orthodox to all sort and manner of Protestant churches, including two - count them, 1, 2 - Episcopal Churches.

I had a dozen or so palms at the ready and 12 service booklets all neatly put together. At ten minutes after four, one young gentleman walked into my office. "Is this Palm Sunday?" he asked, his voice undeniably hesitant if not a little confused.

I invited him in with warmth and reassurance. We waited another ten minutes, talking small talk. He was a graduate student, hoping to become a registered physical therapist. He had been raised Roman Catholic but hadn't really been to church in years. He came to the afternoon's offering out of a sense of good, old-fashioned Catholic guilt. I mean, it WAS Palm Sunday. He SHOULD go to church, right?

No one else appeared to be joining us, so I decided to scrap the formal service and the music, blessed the palms and gave him one as together, we read The Passion in two parts.

At the end of our reading, I looked up and tears were streaming down his face. When he was able to compose himself he said, "You know, I never really heard that story before. I mean, I've heard it read all my life. Sung all the songs about it. Know it by heart. But, I never really HEARD it before."

He stayed a bit later as we talked more about the meaning of the story for his life and what might change because of it. "I don't know, yet, what that story has changed for me. I only know that I'm changed for hearing it. Thank you."

No liturgy. No music. No finely tuned organ. No vestments. No grand church building. No bishop. No Eucharist. Just my simple but rather large office space, a dozen or so palms, and the story of The Passion read by two faithful Christians who were, in that moment, neither Roman Catholic nor essentially Episcopalian nor any particular "brand" of Christianity.

I've come to think we had it closer to right that day, twenty-six years ago.  I'll soon forget the almost two hour service yesterday, but I'll never forget that hour spent with one graduate student on Palm Sunday in Lowell, MA.

Remembering his face prompted me to remember the faces of my children as they watched "Godspell". Indeed, it is making a return to Broadway and two of my children have already written to say, "Let's go!" One of them added, "This play is really Easter for me."

I think their favorite song from Godspell is the a duet between an unnamed woman and the rest of the women in the company.

She has just been healed by him and understands deeply that he has utterly and completely changed her life. She wants to follow but knows that the way will be difficult, if not impossible. She sings:
Where are you going? Where are you going? Can you take me with you?
For my hand is cold And needs warmth Where are you going?
Far beyond where the horizon lies Where the horizon lies
And the land sinks into mellow blueness Oh please, take me with you
Let me skip the road with you I can dare myself I can dare myself
I'll put a pebble in my shoe And watch me walk (watch me walk)
I can walk I can walk!

I shall call the pebble Dare (I shall call the pebble Dare)
We will walk, we will talk together
We will talk About walking Dare shall be carried
And when we both have had enough
I will take him from my shoe, singing "Meet your new road!”
Then I'll take your hand Finally glad (Finally glad)
That I am here By your side (By my side) By your side (by my side)
By your side (by my side) By your side (by my side) By your side (by my side)
Listening to my adult children sing this song almost always brings me to tears in the same way that one of my grandmother's fados did.

I don't know what it is, exactly, that is so deeply moving. I only know that, when I hear them sing that song, they sing it with more understanding about the Christian journey and more emotion than any hymn I've ever heard them sing in church.

I'm not suggesting that the church has completely lost its relevance. I'm not suggesting that we stop doing the ancient ceremonies or stop singing those wonderfully familiar hymns of the church. I'm not suggesting that we replace the Palm Sunday liturgy with a performance of Godspell.

I'm certainly not going to toss out my grandmother's guitarra portuguesa.

I'm not even certain what I'm asking.

I just can't stop thinking about the church and my grandmother's guitarra and the powerful, holy stories of our redemption.

And, I keep hearing what the fox said to the little Prince:

"That which is essential is invisible to the eye."

Where are we going? For my hand is cold, and needs warmth.

Where are we going?


Bex said...

Actually there were three of you there that day.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Bex - At least three. Thank you for that reminder.

Paul said...

"Where are you going?" always moved me too and I could hear the music as I read the words here today. Many blessings on your Holy Week. Mine is totally secular by choice; I was a Holy Week junkie for decades. I look out the office windows at snow falling steadily in Albuquerque this morning. I get to ponder the Paschal mystery outside the ecclesiastical framework. Friends and family have experienced four deaths that I heard of all within days and at the grave we sing, Alleluia, alleluia, allelua! (I go with the Orthodox who do not forsake this word during Lent.)

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Paul - My condolences on your losses. I must say that I never stopped using Alleluias if a funeral occurred during Lent. I'm not sure what the rubrics say. I only know what my heart sings.

"By My Side" (Where Are You Going) has to be one of the most beautiful contemporary Christians songs. Ever.