Friday, April 30, 2010

A Letter from Marlene

Marlene is a good friend of mine and she lives far from here. She writes me letters and sends me cards, and fills me in on people we know in common. We grew up together and our parents were long-time friends.
She sings in her church choir and loves it.
She wrote me recently and mentioned in the letter that the choir is going to sing “Verdi’s Requiem” at Sacred Heart Basilica in Newark, New Jersey. I was ordained there in 1974, and back then it was a cathedral – not yet designated a basilica. That honor was to come much later with a visit by Pope John Paul II.
Marlene wrote that the “Requiem” needs a lot of practice, for as beautiful a piece as it is, it is also very difficult.
She also mentioned that she recently had dinner with a priest, a mutual friend of ours and she was telling him about the rehearsals and the challenging nature of the song and he told her that what is interesting is that Verdi was an atheist. She did not elaborate on that comment but I suppose that the comment was meant to highlight a marked contrast between what Verdi wrote and what he believed (or did not believe). Which made me think a bit long after I put the letter down.
“God” is not an easy topic for discussion. The very notion is God is problematic for a lot of people, and certainly is a hot issue between peoples of varying expressions of faith. It is odd that a word that is supposed to signify a common experience among many different people has been in fact one of the most divisive words in history – and our times are certainly no exception.
Verdi was an obviously highly gifted man, a man intensely inspired by beauty and a genius when it came to expressing that beauty through music. What did he know of God enough to dismiss his existence? Perhaps very little, like all of us humans. Perhaps he had a very sour experience of the religious practices and institutions of his day, an experience that would certainly have forced religious inquiries to take a permanent back seat in light of his passion for music.
Maybe God was in the front seat all along, a God who would not have recognized the trappings of religiosity in the back seat as having anything at all to do with him. It was the front seat ride that was important, whispering as he did in the ear of Verdi some of the most beautiful notes and scales known to humanity.
Some years back I read an appeal from a writer whose name escapes me now but whose appeal does not. He expressed a desire for a musical approach to human solidarity – basically meaning that since most everyone loves music and since music is good for the heart, people should get together and sing, dance, clap their hands and get to know each other through the wondrous strains of music. I really like that idea and I do think that God would be right there, even though his or her name might not be mentioned or even sought after. God is in the music and in what it does, where it comes from.
Marlene has a beautiful voice and will surely give the “Requiem” the time and the concentrated effort needed to sing it as near perfect as possible. And she perform it in a gorgeous basilica, built in honor of God. And all around that basilica, there will be other songs, music playing through the open windows of summer, music playing from CD players carried by young and not-so young on the street, music played from Ipods all across the city. Hearts will rise to the beat, and will feel good, not thinking much about God, a God who does not mind because he is in the music. You do not have to know about God to experience him, to love the music. Verdi did not have to know that. But he sure does now.
Life indeed would be a near perfect blend if we could all get the music right, and the words right, and find a way to harmonize them so that we could all get together. But that is a long way off, and we still need to work hard, practice hard. Someday we will all sing like we found the road to paradise. And then we can know what Verdi knew, and why he put it to music.
Some folks do not think about God too much but they sure know how to play him.

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