Saturday, April 21 , 2018, 8:49 am | Fair 56º


Catholic Church of the Beatitudes: Savoring the Wisdom of Songs, Part II

As a musician of faith, I have been discovering as I get on in years that the proverbial “Great American Song Book” is much more than just a collection of great tunes and snappy lyrics. It also has some wonderfully wise verses — words that resonate in both the secular and the sacred spheres. In fact, quite a few of these classic songs have become an important source of “holy wisdom” for me, and I am still discovering more.

Consider these examples, which propose six more well-known songs-with-substance that complement the six discussed in the previous installment of this article.

» 1. The experience of having our horizons opened up by someone special in our lives can be memorable. In his poem “The Spar­row’s Nest,” William Wordsworth recalls how his sister played that role for him, by opening his capacity to perceive — to be aware. He writes:

She gave me eyes, she gave me ears;
And humble cares, and delicate fears;
A heart, the fountain of sweet tears;
And love and thought and joy.

There’s a similar episode in Scripture, where Jesus literally opens a deaf-mute’s ears and mouth and empowers him to speak. It’s in Mark chapter 7: “They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside. ... Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, Ephphatha! that is, ‘Be opened.’ And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.”

Most of us will never experience a miracle quite as powerful as that, but many of us have felt the joy of being “opened up” in many ways by the power of true love. Meredith Wilson immortalized the ephphatha experience in his famous song “Till There Was You” from the 1950 hit musical The Music Man. Here the pretend bandmaster, Howard Hill, is redeemed by the love and confidence of Marian the librarian. Thanks to her, the makebelieve maestro is finally able to hear and see and trust in the beauty all around him:

There were bells on a hill,
but I never heard them ringing,
No, I never heard them at all till there was you.
There were birds in the sky,
but I never saw them winging,
No, I never saw them at all till there was you!

» 2. Religious folks have a hard time sometimes understanding the idea of God delighting in something we do. Maybe it sounds too childish for a “supreme being” to act that way.

But the Hebrew Bible is rich in these metaphors. For instance, we read in Deuteronomy 30, “For the Lord will again take delight in prospering you, just as he delighted in prospering your ancestors.” And in Psalm 40 we see a reciprocal feeling being expressed by the psalmist, namely, “I delight to do thy will, O my God; thy law is within my heart.”

In the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I, when the British teacher Anna is introduced to the King’s many children, she tries to put everyone at ease by singing “Getting to Know You.” She doesn’t quite say that she is delighting in the situation, but she does describe similar feelings with these delightful words:

… suddenly I'm bright and breezy
Because of all the beautiful and new
Things I'm learning about you, day by day.

There’s a marvelous second verse to this song that is rarely done on stage. It talks about “sharing your spirit” and “knowing how to play” together.

» 3. Holding another’s hand can be deeply meaningful at times. In some traditional cultures, when a woman holds the hand of a man publicly, it means that their marriage is impending. Gestures often speak louder than words.

There’s a biblical episode that takes place on a rough Sea of Galilee. It puts Peter’s faith to the test. Had he not held hands with Jesus, he would probably have perished. This episode occurs in Matthew 14: "So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him."

Nice catch! Let’s consider a secular song lyric by Stephen Sondheim that alludes to the same gesture — holding hands. Tony and Maria, the star-crossed lovers in West Side Story, imagine a better place when they sing the classic words:

There's a place for us / A time and place for us.
Hold my hand and we're halfway there,
Hold my hand and I'll take you there.

» 4. Fidelity is a secular virtue as well as a sacred one. What’s not to admire about being faithful and trustworthy? It’s a kind of universal good. When it comes to the Bible, there are numerous references to and reminders of God’s lasting love for us. They echo through the pages of both Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Consider Psalm 119, where the psalmist declares: “Your faithfulness endures to all generations.”

And in the New Testament, in John 14, Jesus asserts: "I will not leave you orphaned ... .”

When it comes to fidelity in popular and classic songs, the field opens up dramatically, not just with straight statements of faithfulness, but also with situations having some playfulness and novelty.

Quirky and disarming titles catch our fancy, like “What are you doing the rest of your life?” or “You’ll look sweet upon the seat of a bicycle built for two.” But the “fidelity” song that I like best is ironically sung by a passionate and well-meaning adulterer, of all people!

In the 1960 musical Camelot, Sir Lancelot has wonderful ways of rationalizing why he can’t leave Guinevere — in winter, in spring, in summer or in fall, so therefore he can’t leave her at all! Here is a verse from Sir Lancelot’s delightfully inappropriate declaration of enduring fidelity — to somebody else’s wife:

If ever I would leave you,
How could it be in springtime?
Knowing how in spring I'm bewitched by you so?
Oh, no! Not in springtime!
Summer, winter or fall!
No, never could I leave you at all!

» 5. The image of soaring from one world to the next, or from one state of consciousness to the next, is a commonplace in our culture and certainly in the Judeo-Christian tradition. We read in Isaiah 40 that “those who hope in God will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles.”

Here are two beloved secular songs that develop the idea of flying as a metaphor for rising up to a new dimension of consciousness or life, however that may be understood. The first is the lullaby “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess, in which the mother sings to her baby:

One of these mornin’s
you’re going to rise up singing,
and you’ll spread your wings,
and you’ll take to the sky ...

The other well-known song that speaks to the idea of rising to unexpected heights — perhaps soaring off to a land of dreams — is Harold Arlen’s “Over the Rainbow.” At the end, we hear this suggestive rhetorical question:

If happy little bluebirds fly
beyond the rainbow,
why, oh why can’t I? 

These two songs of soaring often resonate deeply with hospice patients, whom I try to serenade weekly as a Visiting Nurse & Hospice Care volunteer on Sunday afternoons at Serenity House, here in Santa Barbara. They often understand completely what these songs mean, and I suspect that such songs have helped more than a few patients near the end of life to “release.” They get it!

» 6. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1945 musical Carousel was boldly spiritual for its time, opening with a scene of Billy Bigelow polishing stars in the afterlife. Gradually the story takes us back in time to the ups and downs of his earthly life, on the coast of New England.

The song “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is a response to a tragedy: Julie, the heroine, has just lost her husband, Billy, who, depressed at being out of work, took his own life. (How contemporary a dilemma! It reminds us of how fragile we all are.)

The 23rd Psalm is a Biblical way of expressing how God is always walking with us, even in the darkest of times: "Yea, thou I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me."

For anyone who has suffered truly devastating difficulties in life, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” provides comfort and reassurance. It restates the same kind of message that Irving Berlin gave us in “Always”: “Days may not be fair ... That’s when I’ll be there!

Walk on through the wind,
Walk on through the rain,
Tho' your dreams be tossed and blown.
Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart
And you'll never walk alone!
You'll never walk alone!

Thomas Heck is a member of and music minister for the Catholic Church of the Beatitudes, which celebrates Mass at 5:30 p.m. Saturdays at First Congregational Church of Santa Barbara, 2101 State St. Click here for more information, or call 805.252.4105. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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