Note from CM: This is one of the first posts by Michael Spencer that I remember commenting on, back in 2008. He touched an area of my life that has always been precious: the profound joy of choral music, especially during the Advent and Christmas seasons. In my comment, I wrote, “There is a combination of holy awe and intimacy in the best Advent and Christmas music that is not duplicated in any other music.” The awakening Michael recalls in this post reflects one of the reasons many of us left the path of American evangelicalism in search of a beauty and transcendence we could not find within its culture.
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“Lo, How a Rose” — Experiencing the Power of Beauty
It was Christmas of 1968. I was a seventh grader at Estes Junior High School. School was a huge part of my world. My father was beginning down the road to depression. I was an only child, and my life wasn’t full of the activities of a typical middle school boy today. My dad didn’t want me to play sports, so I came home every day and watched television, or played with my friends up the street. Looking back, there was a simplicity and goodness to my life, and there was also, right in the center, an emptiness.
My parents were uneducated and unsophisticated “country” people. Mom had grown up on farms in rural western Kentucky. Dad was an eastern Kentucky mountain boy who wound up making his way to the oil fields of western Kentucky where, after a painful divorce, he met and married my mother. We had a good family in many ways and a broken one in others, but it was completely devoid of anything you would call beauty; artistic beauty. There was no music. There were only a few cheap wall decorations. There were almost no books. Because I was an only child, I was treated as special, but I wasn’t introduced to the world of beauty. My parents knew the beauty of nature, but they lived in a city. They knew the beauty of family, and shared that with me. But what they knew of the beauty of music was the sound of folk music in the hollers and on the porches of farmhouses, and I was not there.
My parents did not know the world of artistic beauty. They were strangers to it, and would remain so throughout their lives. I went with dad to stock car races and with mom to Gospel quartet shows. At church, I heard the choir and sang hymns, but there was no awareness in my life of the beauty of great music; music that moved the soul and told the mind and heart of a greater beauty beyond. Every week, we would go to a friend’s home and hear a little country band play in the basement while my parents played Rook. I never knew there was anything else or anything more.
School was my only hope of an outlet from this world. It was at school a year before that I had first watched a real play; “Macbeth,” no less. I never forgot that introduction to Shakespeare and that bloody story of evil unfolding before my childish eyes. And it was at school that I first discovered the beauty of music, in “Lo! How a Rose, E’re Blooming.”
Seventh graders were required to take music class. We were not music enthusiasts, to say the least. There was about us all the sense of artistic compulsion, but in the cause of sheer endurance. Nothing more. Our teacher was Mr. Waite, the assistant principal. Mr. Waite was a towering, imposing, intense force to be reckoned with. He managed rooms full of junior high students with a firmness that produced consistent results. Fear of impending doom concentrates the mind wonderfully, and sometimes, in our case, frees the voice to do great things.
I later learned that he was, in fact, a boisterous, happy and spontaneous man who could make anyone smile, but we rarely, if ever, saw that smile. He was turning seventh grade Philistines into singers, and this was war. His entrance into our tiny music room was like the arrival of a holy prophet bound and determined to convert the captive heathen to the true faith. He did not abide any misbehavior, and we would sing whether we liked it or not. We were there to sing, and we would learn to sing and we did sing. Or else…I’m not sure what would have happened, but I didn’t want to find out.
I couldn’t read a note of music, and though Mr. Waite diligently taught us, and I surely nodded at every lesson, I never learned to actually read music. But that didn’t mean I didn’t learn to sing. I was blessed with a good voice and memory. I loved to sing with a group. If we couldn’t read the music, we could still memorize our part, and I did.
Christmas approached that seventh grade year, and we prepared for a Christmas music program for our parents. I am sure I was in the choir and sang several pieces, but I only recall one piece. Mr. Waite used a small, seventh grade boy’s choir, and among other things, we sang a classic arrangement of “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.”
I knew the usual Christmas Carols from church, but I had never heard this song or anything of its kind. I didn’t understand the text. I didn’t understand the scriptural references. I certainly didn’t understand the beautiful arrangement by German composer Michael Praetorius. I did know that this song was an experience of beauty that moved my young soul like no other music I’d ever heard. The mysterious moving of the notes, slipping in behind one another, created an interaction and harmony unlike anything in my hymn-singing tradition. (Think “When We All Get To Heaven” and you have my total experience.) I was captivated. I couldn’t explain what I was feeling, but it was what C.S. Lewis called “longing for joy.” Having once experienced it, we are never the same, and we are pointed toward God with our sails to the wind of joy.
I remember our performance well. There was a small group of us formerly rowdy boys, all standing in white shirts, singing words from the 15th century, in almost complete ignorance, but now under Mr. Waite’s tutelage, becoming instruments of beauty despite our depravity and barbarian natures. My mother was there, and I am sure she was proud of me in my shirt, tie and cowlick, but I could never tell her, or anyone else, what I was really feeling. I didn’t have words for it myself. I couldn’t have told Mr. Waite what happened to me in those rehearsals and in that performance, but I had entered a whole new world.
I wonder how many people in my world have never been moved by music? They listen to the radio or CDs and are excited, or manipulated, but never moved by pure beauty like a visit from a spirit. How many have never been drawn into the beauty and the mystery of wondrous art like this seventh grade boy? Perhaps that day was my biggest step toward believing that God was real, good and loved me. Could the empty universe of the scientists have produced such a sound, and such a feeling to accompany it? Was this all there was, or was there more? And when this world is exhausted, is that all there is, or is there more beside? Is there what Lewis called a heaven of music and silence?
Mr. Waite, I owe you a great debt. You transformed us into the conduits of beauty, and you put the music of the gods on our lips when we were too young to know what it all meant. You rescued me from an artless world and showed me worlds beyond. You did what every educator should long to do- bring the experience of truth, beauty and wonder into young hearts and minds, and so capture us that we can never be happy again without tasting more of that miracle. You gave me a great gift, a gift that life, with all its pain and loss, will never take away. I will always have that song. And now, I have the Rose of whom the poet wrote, and the beauty that made that wonderful song beautiful is mine as well.