Sunday, December 13, 2009

Bells for Peace and a Silent Center

On the first Sunday of Advent this year, my church choir had the pleasure and privilege of being/singing the prelude for one performance of the Huntington Theater's production of A Civil War Christmas, and then we got to stay for the show.

The show, which closed this weekend, featured music of the period, including a musical setting of the poem by Cambridge, MA poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that he wrote in reaction to the Civil War: Christmas Bells. Nowadays hymnals leave out the verses about the cannons of the Civil War, and I had not heard the whole of the poem in context, so I looked up a collection of Longfellow's poems. The irony of this poem about bells ringing the songs of peace on earth was pointed out in the play, because in the South during the Civil War bells no longer rang out in carols of peace from churches and town halls because the bells had been melted down to become cannon balls.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men

Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good will to men

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men!
While I had heard the tune that they used, it was less familiar to me and somehow more haunting than the one I first learned, and it has stayed with me these past few weeks. I found versions by Harry Belafonte and Sarah MacLachlan that I liked, although neither of these captured quite the pure despair and simplicity and hope, that I had heard in the play.

Unlike Longfellow, the bells that I've been hearing lately have mostly been ringers in front of a Salvation Army kettle, not so loud and deep, but jangling, not singing of peace, but of need.

So, peace on earth has been in my thoughts in recent weeks and the ironies continue. The President of the United States announced that he was escalating the war in Afghanistan on December 1—I listened to the last of his speech on my way home from a service that I participated in for World AIDS Day. Hm, what if we took the money we're using for war and devoted it to medicine for the millions dying of AIDS? Did you know that AIDS is one of the leading causes of death for women worldwide? (Interesting side note: both Belafonte and McLachlan use some of their artistic work toward the health of women and children in Africa, including fighting against AIDS.)

Then the irony was heightened as President Obama went to Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace prize. He noted in his speech, "But perhaps the most profound issue surrounding my receipt of this prize is the fact that I am the Commander-in-Chief of a nation in the midst of two wars." You think?

I didn't hear him live and I had to search hard to find the text of his speech to read it because on Thursday I was busy helping a loved one check into the hospital because she suffers from a disease that may in fact be a perfect example of the mockery of peace on earth. Crohn's is an autoimmune disease, which means the immune system goes haywire and attacks the body or doesn't protect the body correctly when something else attacks the body, or sometimes both, at once. The increase in such diseases is attributed partially to the increasing amount of environmental toxins we create and spread and ingest, and her flare-ups, though this was a more extreme one, are almost always related to periods of high stress.

She is Jewish and we virtually lit the first candles of Hanukkah while she has been in the hospital (virtually meaning no flame—too many people on oxygen). So then my thinking of peace took a personal and a Jewish turn. The Hebrew word, shalom, while usually translated as peace in English, really has a broader meaning, more like holy wholeness. Hospitals, in contrast, really are about sickness, not about health or wholeness. Hospitals are about care, often and maybe usually intrusively and noisily provided, not about rest or quiet. Saturday, after my third day of just visiting her in the hospital, I was so jangled I came home absent my own quiet center, my own piece of peace on earth.

And in despair, I bowed my head: 'There is no peace on earth,' I said.

On Sunday morning as we began choir rehearsal our choir director began with a prayer as he always does, but today after he said, "let us pray," he paused. He held that pause until it became pure silence, and in that moment before spoken prayer, not measurable in time by clocks, but only by the sense of the Spirit moving among us. As I sat surrounded by friends and people of faith and preparing to sing and to worship, I was both surrounded by and filled with peace.

God is not dead, nor does God sleep.

May we each find our way, through prayer, through music or poetry, or through your own path, into peace and wholeness and centeredness, especially in this season where the bells are not always singing the songs of peace on earth.

1 comment:

  1. eloquent as always; I don't know about you, but I am amazed at the inspirations I receive from bad things, or sad things, or both. Nevertheless, I wish only happiness for you and me, and while I am at it, what the hell, the rest of the world as well. Merry Christmas! If you are having a New Year's Eve Party, please invite us. I hope all will be well enough by that time.