Benedict Sheehan: Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom

Six long-gone years of piano lessons hardly qualify me to write about music of this caliber. You can learn far more about its technical excellence and its place in the traditions of great music from the notes provided here.

I am able to write about it as a human being.

I converted to Orthodox Christianity as an adult. My decision rested, among other thing, on the numerous moments in which some expression of the faith, whether in liturgy or theology or age-old tradition, aligned perfectly with what my own life has taught me about being human. There is something intrinsically, almost primordially real about this Christianity. It is worship for the intellect certainly, but for the heart also, and all five senses. I treasured these moments, and still do. To me, they constitute glimpses into the essence of things. The veil is thin, praise God, and permeable.

Listening to Sheehan’s liturgy, even in snatches, is an encounter with this wholeness, this PERSONHOOD. Almost unbearably beautiful. Nothing left empty, no fragment of attention or feeling withdrawn. Dear God, let us never forget how to make such music. Layers of meaning, of spirit, grief, revelation, transcendence, and peace enfold me. Even if my lips are still, I am singing.

It fascinates me to experience this liturgy as a physical phenomenon. My brain loves this music. My body is wired to respond with euphoria. Why is that? There is science for this, I know, but I also know that the natural posture of a human being is eucharistic. Everything that has breath is created to praise the Lord. This music, made solely with human voices trained by years of patient effort, is a breath offering. Air, lungs, sinew, intelligence, all the facets of the human instrument produce the sound, and the human instrument and its soul respond because this is a manifestation of our nature. It is our selves rendering up our truest identity to the God who gifted us with this magnificence.

You should buy a copy, of course, either directly from Cappella Romana or on Amazon, both because it’s beautiful and because it’s important. Inches from your face at this moment, via the same device you’re using to read this post, you can find horrifying evidence of disaster in the world. Corruption, oppression, greed, unreasoning rage, and perversion of every kind. It’s not even worth arguing that people are sometimes the worst problem this world has to offer. That’s why you need this music, and that’s why it’s important to support this music. We need to hold on to the better things, to the glory for which we were intended. We need to remember that this music exists, and we need to remember how to make it, and we need to keep on making it. We must grasp it with both hands, and never let go.

More things are wrought by prayer

Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice

Rise like a fountain for me night and day.

For what are men better than sheep or goats

That nourish a blind life within the brain,

If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer

Both for themselves and those who call them friend?

For so the whole round earth is every way

Bound by gold chains about the feet of God.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Writing board books

Writing board books is a little like math or music for me. I love it! I love gazing at the entire story in my head, and then pouring it into just a few hundred chosen words. And saying the words out loud, nodding along, hitting a pencil to the desk, listening for beat and tripping tongue moments, pressing all the meaning and metaphor and allusion into those few, chosen words. Saint stories are fertile ground for this musical math. Sometimes only a few words of story are known, sometimes there are many and it is a greater labor to fit them into the tiny book. I love doing it.


Hearing RAchmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil

If you attended the Chamber Choir of St. Tikhon’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil on May 26, 2018, you will find these words a poor substitute for your memories of the event. If you did not, let me try to describe for you what it was like.

We sat in rows of wooden chairs under the steep arc of a mosaiced cathedral ceiling. The lights were on. We were all awake, and the cushions were not soft enough to induce drowsiness (as sometimes happens at an evening concert…). The stage, if you can call it that, was simply the stone steps built into the cathedral floor, leading up to the altar area. The choir wore black. There were no special effects.

The 25 musicians filed out from a door at the side, carrying their music and smiling at us. Their faces showed anticipation and focus. They were already poised, already concentrating on the first note. There were no instruments. There was nothing at all except the acoustic space, the choir, and a gifted conductor.

The music began.

It was immediately transcendent. One moment, I was sitting in a chair holding a program. The next moment, I was gone.

This music is like water. Deep, clear, abundant water that flows into every opening. You hear it inside yourself, in all the holy spaces you sense are present behind your ribs and between your ears. It was a kind of immersion that is difficult to find or describe here on this planet where gravity is a fact and we expect pressure, even strangulation, to result when we are filled so completely with something outside ourselves.

I am not a mathematician, so you will forgive me when I abandon numerical sense and say the sound was 100% natural, bodily even, and 100% ethereal, shockingly intense and utterly, weightlessly peaceful. The paradox draws the mind to Christ, a resurrection in which all creation is lifted up – our lungs, our ears, our vocal chords, the wet, sinuous workings of our physical instrument baptized and redeemed in the celestial grace of this prayer they are so beautifully created to offer up.

The audience sat still. In the pauses between sections, no one spoke. We were totally absorbed. Time wandered away from us, and when the music ended, we rose as one body. It was the most spontaneous standing ovation I’ve seen in a long, long time.​