A Detour through St. Francis

Last Friday I was catching up with Duncan after lunch, and we got on the subject of music, and how hymns seem to have imprinted my subconscious though a lot of them were kinda dull. Which triggered a Whole Lotta Thoughts.

These days I don’t go to church, but I grew up surrounded by it; Dad was an ordained minister in New Jersey, Mom played the organ, and we all moved to a seminary in Taiwan when I was 9 when Dad was called to serve as president there. I guess you could say I was raised in an “‘academic church environment”…all of our family friends seemed to be professors or scholars of some kind. Professionals, if you will, on the front lines of Christian Education. I used to think that this mostly involved holding hands and praying before you got a big “C” stamped on your forehead, but it’s actually quite rigorous. When you meet an ordained minister from one of the Mainline Protestant Churches, know that he or she’s been through something akin to special forces training. Mental stamina and philosophical resolve are required on top of innate psychological stability…lots of people wash out.

Anyway, another big part of the Church is, of course, all the music and singing. My sis and I were exposed to quite a lot of it in the regular church services. Additionally, the seminary in Taiwan had a music department, with piano and and vocal practice at all hours of the day. When I opened a window, I could hear it in the distance. Mom taught organ at home sometimes too, practiced the piano, and we also sometimes attended the big choral recitals.

It’s too bad I didn’t actively enjoy that kind of music at the time…rather than bluesy Gospel music, it was a lot of the classic church stuff: 4/4 time, C Major scale. Over and over. But there were some strange connections I made with that. Although I wasn’t very musically inclined on the piano, I did for a couple years play the harmonica. My grandpa had given me a tremelo-style one keyed in C Major, and I quickly discovered that the only music I could really play on it were hymns. Did I mention that grandpa was also an ordained minister? Coincidence? I think not! But this gave me an appreciation of how music was structured (mostly that Rock was somehow cooler and different). After a few years, I stopped playing, being drawn into the world of knock-off Apple II clones.

20 years go by.

Recently, I was attending Scott’s graduation from Business School at UNH Durham, and at the end we had to sing the UNH College Anthem. I’d never heard it in my life, but as soon as it started up I recognized the tune and progression from some hymn I’d heard a long time ago, and am able to follow it through the various little tricky bits without stumbling. That was kind of cool. It struck me that a lot of old college and organizational anthems probably derive from hymnal melodies, deeply-rooted as these songs would be.

All that church music, I realize now, must have left some kind of musical imprint. I have a good sense of relative pitch and an innate sense of what scales are supposed to sound like…I can hear them in my head, though I don’t know what the names are. It makes me wonder if I can actually get the music out in some expressive form. What would it be like?

I was mentioning all this to Duncan last Friday, and he made the comment that there was one performance by Sarah McLaughlin called The Prayer of St. Francis that he found particularly moving both lyrically and musically. He forwarded me the information: the verse apparently isn’t written by St. Francis at all, but by an anonymous French Catholic priest during WWI:

O Lord, make me an instrument of Thy Peace! Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is discord, harmony. Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is despair, hope. Where there is darkness, light. Where there is sorrow, joy. […]

I can imagine a priest, surrounded by the wholesale slaughter that the Industrial Revolution made possible, penning this verse in defiance against the darkness. As a kid, I never would have appreciated this.

The combination of music, early recollections, reassessment, and affirmation of positive action…a good way to start off a reflective Sunday morning.