Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Light Sings

"That Song" by Brian Kershisnik

“Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.” —Plato

Charmer of stones and trees, Orpheus could make the clouds dance with his song. The poet-seer manifests the power of godsong, the truth that God sings. Or plays the lyre. Or both. A couple of months ago, as we listened to my cousin Annie play heartbreakingly beautiful music from her lonely, lovely violin, I thought that God must play an instrument. Oh, I imagine He could play all instruments. But what would He have played as a man if He lived in a world like mine? That question occupied my mind for much of the concert. I think I have often pictured him playing the piano—ragtime—and laughing like my father-in-law. But he might be a violinist. I can imagine His mortal self as a wiry, intelligent violin player with a wry smile and a twinkling eye playing plaintive, mournful, wonderful music. My cousin Wayne imagines a cello, and that can’t be far off. There is a godlike resonance to the cello. And of course He sings. Oh, how He sings. I can’t wait to sing with Him. That’s why angels sing—His voice is infectious: you just have to join in.

We took the kids to the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake for the Christmas Carols service. It was a mingling of disparate holinesses: transcendence and imminence intertwined. God up there, and godliness loudly, wildly here in the bodies of my children. There were times I was anxious about the rambunctiousness of my four. And there were times I closed my eyes and let the music wash over me and wash me. When the choir began to sing, the air shimmered with the sound. It was absolutely breathtaking. We were sitting toward the front of the chapel, and the choir started at the back, walking down the aisles. Oliver couldn’t see the choir from his seat. “Who’s singing?” he asked, over and over again in his one-volume two-year-old voice. The cathedral ceiling was painted with angels, and angels populated the stained-glass windows. “Are the angels singing? Is it the angels singing?” I tried to explain that it was a choir at the back of the chapel, but he wouldn’t have it. Finally I said, to silence him, “Yes, the angels are singing.” And I imagine they were.

“Music is part of the language of the Gods. It has been given to man so he can sing praises to the Lord. It is a means of expressing, with poetic words and in melodious tunes, the deep feelings of rejoicing and thanksgiving found in the hearts of those who have testimonies of the divine Sonship and who know of the wonders and glories wrought for them by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Music is both in the voice and in the heart. Every true saint finds his heart full of songs of praise to his Maker.” That’s Bruce R. McConkie. And it’s true.

A year ago I was driving Lydia to her ballet class. Lyd wanted to listen to some music, but all I had in the car were some old cassettes. So I told her she could choose between Simon and Garfunkel (“I can’t remember that, so I’ll just call it Uncle Carbuncle”) and Huey Lewis and the News. “This is kinda rockin’,” she said of Uncle Carbuncle. Her assessment of the News: “This is just plain.” She expounded: “My dance teacher always chooses rockin’ music to dance to, which is funny because we do pretty dances to rockin’ music. There are four kinds of music: rockin’, pretty, plain, and both. Some music is both pretty and rockin.” So there you have it. I think Lyd is both pretty and rockin’. Both is the best.

I love living in a world of music. Music is evidence to me that I have a soul. It moves me in ways that don’t make sense, communicates to a part of me that transcends understanding. Plato said, “Music and rhythm find their way into the secret places of the soul.” My testimony of God’s attentive love for humanity began with a song. I was twelve and in church and we sang “Joseph Smith’s First Prayer”—that song about a pillar of divine light falling on a wiry boy in the woods—and I felt truth and light pour into my slight frame.

“Music takes us out of the actual and whispers to us dim secrets that startle our wonder as to who we are, and for what, whence, and whereto.” Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Last Christmas, an institute choir came to my work’s holiday banquet as we were finishing our food, and my expectations were low at best. But they scattered themselves throughout the hall, among the tables—a tenor here and an alto there. And then they sang. They sang glorias and alleluias and they sang light and love and grace. They were close enough, the close ones, to hear the particularity of their voices, but they blended with unseen others off in the distance. I closed my eyes and let it flow over me. Audible grace. I felt close to heaven. Of course I can’t really explain it because it was ineffable. And we all sat there stunned and silent afterward, unsure of what to say to those at the table by us because words were insufficient. I know words are often sufficient (because love engenders language and a desire for communion begets communication), but music is extravagant, abundant. It is transcendent. And I love it. It seems that God might well have sung “Let there be light,” don’t you think?

Berthold Auerbach said, “Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” We were gathered as a family on Christmas Eve. After we had acted out the nativity and shared scripture and story and song, we were wrapping up. Oliver asked, “When are we going to sing more songs?” Julie asked, “Do you want to sing more?” “I’m not going to sing. I’m going to wave my shaker.” He was holding a pom-pom. “Well, what song do you want?” “Drummer boy!” We started singing. My family likes to sing, so it was lively. As soon as the song struck, Oliver began leaping, a manifestation of what might rightly be called earnest gleefulness. His face was sincere. His body was exuberance. He bounded and bounced. I thought of Frederick Delius’s thought: “Music is an outburst of the soul.” After a few songs, my brother laughed and said, “That was healing.”

“The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.” Johann Sebastian Bach.

Eight-month-old Eleanor loves to sing. She likes the pretty songs more than the rockin’. In church or with the family, when the world erupts into song, she opens her mouth and opens her eyes and sings along. She is very earnest. She feels it. “Aaaah! Aaahh!” Victor Hugo said, “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and cannot remain silent.” She neither has words nor can she remain silent. So she sings.

When we were up in Salt Lake one day, Emerson said to me, “Dad! The light sings!” He lay down on the cobblestones and placed his ear near the base of a lamppost which was emanating music. And the light does sing. How many celebrants expressed their joy at the birth of the Savior through song? Angels, Mary, Simeon, Anna, Zacharias. All sang. As well they might. One of the ancient temple responsibilities was that of singer. Because song is sacred. Because God sings. Because the song is light.

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