Miracles Do Happen–If We Listen

Kevin Vortmann as the Celebrant in Leonard Bernstein’s MASS (photo courtesy of the University of South Carolina School of Music)

Saturday, March 4, in Columbia, South Carolina, I witnessed what I can describe only as a miracle, the University of South Carolina’s performance of Leonard Bernstein’s MASS. By Monday, when I could not stop pondering–seeing, hearing, singing–those 110 minutes of capital-T Truth, I understood what made that miracle and learned, I hope, to be alert for the next one. In short, as I reflected on the path that led me to this rare opportunity, I realized that sometimes, the confluence of a series of disparate events can lead to a moment of clarity and understanding so momentous that James Joyce likened it to the Epiphany, the manifestation of the Son of God to the Gentiles. Yes, that’s what happened to me in South Carolina on March 4–and, I suspect, to many others. But it happened only because we had our ears and our hearts open to the experience.

It all started on Facebook. Last August, I was in a rage that the molehill of the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally had been made into a media-created mountain. And I was dismayed to read on Facebook that Laura Inscoe, an Episcopal priest and former attorney from Richmond whom I admire exceedingly, was part of the crowd protesting the protest and, in my view, condoning the suppression of free speech.  When I wrote about my reactions, I sent the post to Laura via Facebook, hoping she would respond and help me understand why someone of her intellect and character would take part in the frenzy.

She did not reply, but one of her Facebook friends did. He had an interesting first name, Tayloe, gray hair, and a distinguished look matched by his articulate prose. He made an impassioned case that “what is implied by and leads from the speech” of the white supremacy movement almost inevitably leads to criminal acts that are clearly not protected under the First Amendment. He then suggested, “I never fear for the First Amendment because in the end, we cannot kill it unless we neglect it.” Although having experienced vicariously the crisis of free speech on campus disinclined me to be persuaded, I was impressed by his impassioned eloquence. He continued, arguing that giving polarizing labels–racist, killer–to all members of either side “exaggerates the narrative and makes it much harder to distinguish in public discourse more nuanced points,” in this case, about whether to tear down Confederate monuments or finding “better ways of reflecting our troubled past.” For the moment, I agreed to disagree with this man whom I did not know but already respected a great deal. I befriended Tayloe Harding on Facebook, and he accepted my friend request.

As the months progressed, I continued to find myself at loggerheads with those I have chosen as political bedmates since entering graduate school in 1975. And I continued to write about my disaffection here and here and here. Emulating my college mentor, John V. Mering, who taught me that it’s always easier to write criticism than to praise, I found my words increasingly acerbic–even when writing about Lent!–and realized that this sharp tongue did not fit well with the image of Christlike compassion I long to portray.

In this same interval, I found myself saddled with a Performance Improvement Plan at work because too many students had complained about me. They said I treated them like children, made them afraid to ask questions, seemed not to see them as people. I was given only an eight-week contract and began to pray each morning during my long commute that I would be able to keep my job past March 15. At least, that’s how the prayers started. But as the semester progressed, my prayers began to change, and I began to change. I prayed for guidance in the classroom–for the ability to to care a little less about tardiness and whispered conversations, to dampen my anger, to curb my tongue. Slowly, I realized that such a change would require that I change not only my behavior, but also my feelings. So I prayed that I could love my students. I had learned to love 36 murderers and other convicted criminals when I served on the Kairos Prison Ministry, so surely I could love a few classrooms full of English composition students. But then I remembered another lesson. Because it’s never easy to love others, I realized that I must surrender my will and simply ask for and then live in God’s grace. He would do the rest.

I continued my daily interactions on Facebook, and I noticed that the distinguished and eloquent Tayloe Harding was posting photos and videos of marching bands. Of course, as someone who spent much of her young life marching to the cadence of “eight steps to five yards, all steps the same size, left, left, left right left,” I stood at attention and took note. I Googled his name and learned that he is the Dean of the School of Music at the University of South Carolina.  When, on January 12, he posted his first teaser about the upcoming performance of MASS, I was immediately interested. I read about it and listened to excerpts online. One of those readings was Harding’s op-ed piece “Can Music Heal a Broken Nation?”  Since my entire life has, to one degree or another, been determined by music, I had to answer yes. I got my tickets on February 9 and began sending out emails and posting on Facebook, encouraging my fellow Episcopalians and musicians to do so as well (Columbia is only three hours’ drive from home and two from work, after all).

The days and weeks passed. In proportion to my willingness to relax into grace, my classrooms became more inviting, I became (along with my rules) more relaxed, and the students seemed more comfortable. I slowly came to realize that 2018 is not 1975, and with that understanding came the ability to expect less and to love more easily and fully. And I agreed to join the chorus at our community college–for the alto section, but also for me. But I continued to feel and write my rage about people wearing “Make America Great Again” caps and shouting “me, too” and identity politicking our society into increasingly polarized groups that scarcely speak to one another. And despite the love, I continued to be called a racist and an advocate of rape culture and an abusive hack on social media. I felt myself a poster child for the words of Condoleezza Rice when she said to Morning Edition host Rachel Martin, “These days, we seem to be dividing ourselves into ever smaller groups, each with its own grievance, each with its own narrative. Increasingly, we just yell at each other. We don’t talk to one another.”

That was February 27. MASS was four days later, and we were in the front row.

I took this photo as the orchestra warmed up before the performance. I LOVE the waving violinist!

MASS opens with the unnerving cacophony of the 12-tone Kyrie. The self-absorbed Street Singers stroll across the stage with scarcely a glance towards each other–prim stewardess, swaggering GI, pussy-hatted protester, tattooed street thug, addict looking for a fix, and pharmacist willing to provide it. In these first few moments, MASS reveals with stark precision the uncanny similarities between the turbulent worlds of 1971, when it was first performed, and today.

The Celebrant begins his preparations with a hauntingly beautiful melody: “Sing God a simple song: Lauda, laude.” The congregants come to the mass searching for . . . what, exactly? Some form of affirmation, I expect. They join the general confession, but mostly they confess their anguish and their anger, their fear and their confusion–that same confession expressed throughout the ages from Paul until now:

What I say I don’t feel,
what I feel I don’t show,
what I show isn’t real,
what is real, Lord, I don’t know.

They become increasingly restive until they witness a healing, and then they all demand to be healed, as revealed in the photo with which I opened this post. But the celebrant knows he cannot heal them all; ritual and liturgy begin to fail. Rock band and blues band–and even marching band–compete with orchestral music and the measured strains sung in Latin by the choir. By the time the Street Chorus sings the Agnus Dei, pandemonium reigns, and the harmonious dance of “grant us thy peace” becomes a group of belligerents–may I say protesters and counter protesters?–violently screaming “PACEM!” at each other.

We’re fed up with your heavenly silence,
and we only get action with violence,
so if we can’t have the world we desire, Lord,
we’ll have to set this one on fire!
Dona nobis, dona nobis.

I suppose it was at this very moment that I understood fully the expression of truth I was witnessing–the inevitable chaos that ensues in any age of division and polarization like our own.  Tears began to trickle down my cheeks.

In a fit of impotence and rage, the Celebrant hurls the elements of the Holy Eucharist to the floor, ponders the spilled wine and the broken glass, and muses, “How easily things get broken.”

Mimi Harding, “Pax: Communion,” courtesy of S. Andrews Photography

But into that chaos comes the Holy Spirit in the otherworldly flute solo of Pax: Communion. She is joined by the boy soprano: “Sing God a secret song: Lauda laude.” And slowly, through shared music–lauda was the vernacular sacred music of medieval and Renaissance Italy–all the discordant voices become one. The entire company join voices and instruments–and hands:

Almighty Father, incline thine ear:
Bless us and all those who have gathered here.
Thine angel send us,
who shall defend us all; and fill with grace
all who dwell in this place. Amen.

The Celebrant intones, “The Mass is ended. Go in peace.” Only the overwhelming silence of the 1,500 people who shared this moment and this music with me prevented me from shouting the traditional response: “Thanks be to God.”

Was it, I wonder, an accident of the calendar at the concert hall–or was it part of the miracle–that the MASS was celebrated during Lent?

Returning to the hotel, I wrote my initial response on Facebook, where the miracle began:

While I am still basking in the glow of Leonard Bernstein’s MASS (we were in the front row and were definitely glowing), I must make a couple of brief comments to express my immediate reaction:

In his introductory remarks, Tayloe Harding, Dean of the USC School of Music, whom I am privileged to have met through Facebook, reminded us that music is not complete until it is experienced by the listener. He added that he expected each of us to have a unique experience of the performance to follow. But then he said that he was sure each of us would also have the same experience shared by the musicians and dancers on the stage and in the pit—the overarching message of hope in Bernstein’s incomparable work.

My unique reaction was twofold:
1. If the Mass is anything at all, it must be what we witnessed last night—the progression from brokenness to healing; and
2. Music is an essential part of the process.

As for the shared message, my wish is that all 1,500 people in the auditorium experienced the same gradual warming sense of hope that had me in tears for the last 2/3 of the show and has changed me inside and, I pray, forever. Yes, indeed, I know even more strongly than ever that music shared can change the world.

Thanks be to God.

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2 Responses to Miracles Do Happen–If We Listen

  1. E says:

    I am so glad that you were able to attend our production of MASS.
    If it allowed you a moment to step back and reflect, then I thing we did our jobs.
    Bernstein’s music and text are very powerful indeed.

    Ellen Douglas Schlaefer
    Director of Opera Studies
    Stage Director/producer MASS

    • Boz says:

      Thank you, Ellen. Every one of the 200+ people involved with your production did indeed do his or her job and much, much more, clearly a labor of passion and love. My husband and I are equally grateful, in our very different ways, for the opportunity to experience MASS.

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