Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Into, as always, the dark

Maybe we all live by narrative. Maybe narratives are the tissues and the sinews that bind all the organs of our life together. We sit--or at least I sat—at the computer and studied the screen. The news of the last year—2016—hardly seemed altogether explicable: there were terrorist attacks all over Europe, and that made, in a way, perfect sense because….

But wait, did it make sense? There were days I wondered about that, and so I decided to embark on a challenge, to see if there was one corner of Western civilization that was going along as it ought. And so I settled on Johann Sebastian Bach. He had, after all, written one or two or even sometimes three cantatas for chamber orchestra, soloists and chorus for each week of the calendar year. Surely, surely, if the greatest composer of this or any time had gone to the trouble of doing it—well OK, he was being paid—I could listen to all of them. It would take a year, of course, but I had the time. I would sit in a café in Old San Juan; I would listen to BWV-whatever (a good blogger could explain what BWV actually means—all I can say is that it’s the cataloguing system of Bach’s work. Oh, and by the way, the cantatas occupy the first 225 or so BWV numbers.)

The idea, as I remember it, was to put a bit of order into a world that seemed less and less ordered. The whole enterprise was founded, in fact, by the Lutheran Liturgical year. Not, of course, that I knew anything much about the church year—Lutheran or otherwise. But it seemed like a thing to do.

Right, so I looked it up, and was unsurprised to find that the who thing began with Advent, which is roughly the four Sundays before Christmas. OK—that was vaguely familiar, since I remember Advent calendars, with their little windows that you would open each day (or was it each Sunday?) as a sort of incredibly low-tech advertisement for Christmas. The idea, I realized, was to get everybody ready—Christ is coming, the savior is soon to be born, and we’re all about to rollercoaster through his life until we get to the Resurrection.

Did it matter that I have no religious faith whatsoever? A person—I could hardly call him a friend—had suggested that I develop a spiritual life, and suggested his own exit ramp from isolation and despair: the Jehovah's Witnesses.

I had checked into this group, in fact, and discovered quite a story about them. And hadn’t they had one of the most bizarre history of all the bizarre 19th Century religions? Because I seemed to remember: whoever their founder was had predicted no less that three “ends-of-the-world.” The first two had gone more or less swimmingly: true, the world didn’t end, but a very satisfying number of followers had thought it might, and had gone so far as to refuse to plant their spring crops, and even to sell their land. (Though one wonders--why? Had they found a way, after all, to take it with them? Was it truly useful to have some pocket change in the after life? Or did it just satisfy a need to wrap things up, leave their affairs in order?) Anyway, as I remember, the founder of the religion, being none too bright, decided to announce a THIRD end of the world. And guess what? That one came and went as well, and that left the founder with a conundrum. Either announcing the end of the world was going to have to turn into an annual event, or we had to do some really good theological hocus-pocus here. And so we got a great explanation: the third end-of-the-world had indeed occurred! It was just that we couldn’t see it! Oh, and the second coming of Christ was very much upon, but also very much invisible.

The Internet has had perhaps too much Christmas cheer and is sleeping off in cyberspace—and so I can neither confirm nor deny all of this. But does it matter? If I wanted to, I could do low-tech, and run out to the plaza just outside the café, where to Jehovah's Witnesses are ready to tell men what the Bible really says, and trust me, they would have the full story. But I didn’t want that.

I wanted something comfortably obscured, if not eroded and smoothed, by the long passage of time. True, Martin Luther had his share of nuttiness, too: he took shelter in a castle / monastery, if memory serves, for a year while he was translating the Bible into German. So there he was, locked up in one room, and the walnut tree outside began to shed its nuts, and dropping them loudly on the roof. You or I, perhaps, might venture to the window, see the tree, notice the autumn foliage, and curse under our breath. Luther, apparently, thought that the devil was throwing rocks at the roof.

Anyway, no one remembers any of this, perhaps because it isn’t true. But the point is that the Lutherans got together a nice little scheme. The year would start with Advent, progress to Christmas, then venture on to Lent, then stumble on to Pentecost (think that’s how it works, since I have looked up Pentecost every year of my atheist life, and if I’m right, it’s when the spirit and teaching of Christ comes down and smacks the believers in the head). Then we sort of go along—for some reason—to Trinity, which I can’t understand, and which no one else can understand either. But not to worry, because a very good friend of mine says that the Trinity is a basic mess, so much so that senior ministers leave town on Trinity Sunday and leave the adjunct ministers to minister on it.

After all this strenuous activity, one sits back and goes golfing, presumably, because the year has ended, and now all we have to do is wait for Advent again. True, there may not be too many surprises when the Liturgical year begins again, but isn’t that the point? Isn’t there something reassuring about knowing the end of this story? True, there have been years when for me Christmas did not come, when Christ died stillborn in the manger, when the shepherds took a wrong turn, or followed the wrong star, or simply got a changeling—it isn’t always easy to see the heavenly host. And Easter? Yes, for me, there had been years when the boulder had refused to budge, when Christ languished in that tomb, and never ascended.

And as I said to that man, “neither God nor Christ speaks to me.”

This, as Handel would said in Messiah, was laughed unto derision.

“Oh yes they do!” said the group. “You’re just not listening!”

Well, I thought I had. I had spent hours meditating, I had prayed in Christian churches, I had gone on a retreat in a Catholic monastery, and I….well, had done as much as most. And no, Christ nor God nor the Holy Spirit had much to say to me. Spiritually speaking, I had neither road map nor GPS. I did, though, often admire the scenery.

So it was time, I thought, to hitch a ride with someone altogether greater than I, both musically and spiritually. Bach was my man: I would listen to all of the Bach cantatas of the entire year. Yup—all 225 of them, and who knew? If God still chose not to speak to me, at least Bach would have, and that would be no lessor thing. And perhaps, at the end, I could find the narrative again.

The narrative—remember the narrative? The thing that we all—especially writers—live by? I started out Advent of 2015 confused: by Advent 2016, I would be shining with clarity!

How wrong I was….



The Cantata for the first week of Advent--and a stunner!