Good Zeal


Last night, I did something I rarely take the time to do. I sat in my room upstairs in Joseph Hall and listened to a CD in its entirety. The CD I chose, somewhat at random, was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.

I started out half listening and half reading an article. The article, though, was soon abandoned, and I leaned back in my rocker and simply listened as movement followed movement and tempos shifted and keys changed and fanfares were sounded and answered and themes emerged and were repeated in variation after variation, all leading at last to that glorious fourth movement that we know as the Ode to Joy.

Listening to the entire work was not only thoroughly pleasurable and deeply moving, it was an instructive reminder about attending to the whole, about remembering that what might be present for a moment – a dissonant chord, a contrapuntal rhythm, a musical phrase without a response – is not all that there is. The opus keeps moving, the dissonance resolves, the cello is answered by the violin, a motif is developed and repeated in deepening variations.

If we listen to only a single movement of a symphony, it’s easy to forget that it is part of a larger work. Likewise, a single period or event in our lives, when seen in isolation, can cause us to lose perspective on the whole. A dissonant chord, a single unharmonious note, a sudden change in tempo…any or all of these can cause us to inwardly grimace at the discordant sound, not understanding, appreciating, or properly contextualizing the dissonant note or unexpected chord.

Enduring such a time requires trust, perspective, patience, and hope: trust in the composer to lead us beyond the dissonance, perspective that is able to envision the whole beyond the part, and patience to wait in hope. For me, last night, resting from the work of the day, patience involved simply taking the time to listen to an entire symphonic work. In life, though, we are sometimes called to sustained periods of dissonance. Significant trust and perspective are required to persevere in patient hope.

The word ‘symphony’ means ‘concordance of sound.’ From the listener’s perspective, and speaking spiritually, we could also think of this as ‘concordance of attention.’ We are called to listen and attend to the various movements, motifs, and rhythms of our lives with trust, perspective, and patience rooted in hope, knowing that movement will follow movement, the tempo will shift, the key will change, the cello’s call will be answered, and themes will develop and deepen, always leading us ultimately toward God, the source of all joy.

Postscript: Music in the monastery – There is plenty in our liturgy of course, but many of us keep CD players in our rooms. However we do keep the volume low in consideration of others and to maintain a good, quiet environment in the monastic living areas. I must admit that it was hard to refrain from cranking up the volume last night, especially during that 4th movement!

For more on music in the monastery, see the October 6, 2010 entry, Sister Anastasia’s Orchestra, in the archives at left.

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