By Br. Kyle Berceau
[Dear Mepkin Family, I apologize for the length of this reflection…I am working on that! I have a lot of thoughts I love to share! Of course, I hope it is life-giving to you in some way. At once. I invite you to connect with us at Mepkin in a new more simple manner of reflection with our fresh off the press new community Twitter account, Mepkin Daily Word, accessible from our website.]
I love singing the psalms (and the whole of our Mepkin liturgy in general). I only wish I had more experience singing! You see, I grew up with sports, so music never really got much time. Today, however, one of the strongest desires I have as I’ve entered the monastery is to develop a deeper understanding of music and capacity to sing. How it increases my love for God to sing, and in my love for Him to sing well, to offer something truly beautiful. What greater gift could there be than to pour out one’s heart to God in song?
In my lack of experience with singing, I find there are a lot of things to pay attention to, and in the beginning it is hard to process all that information mentally, and yet at once to let go and sing with a heart of loving surrender. Little comes immediately as second nature, so for example, I need to give attention to the length, and pitch, of the notes; I need to be aware of the time signature of the piece which may slow or quicken those same notes; then there are the words themselves; additionally I want to be attentive to hearing those around me and harmonizing with the single community voice, and to also keep my eyes and heart on God, and with those with and for whom I may be praying particularly at any given moment.
It is these latter places of attention to which I primarily wish to address this reflection. I’ve experienced much trial and error as I live into the gradual learning curve. And yet I do thank God that he is One, for in that light, music is just another angle and expression of the singular truth that I have indeed experienced more personally in sports, which has its own music to it, and other areas of life, and so I can do my best to apply my own experience to what is new to me.
A couple reflections I bring to my experience of liturgical prayer from my sports background— the game of football is particularly helpful here. I have images of my dad coaching me in my middle school years, and all those times at the line of scrimmage reminding myself not to worry about whether my teammates will indeed remember ‘the count’ (middle school football requires a lot of team discipline if all eleven guys on the field are to not false-start!), but rather to only focus on the count myself and my role. It is amazing to remember how you can go to the line of scrimmage saying “okay, it’s on two, it’s on two…”, and then the second you start thinking about the guy next to you hoping he’ll remember it’s on two, you’ve moved immediately at the quarterback’s “hut-one!”, to your chagrin, sending your team back on a five yard false-start penalty. So I bring this experience to the liturgy! It is not for me to worry so much about first harmonizing with the guy next to me—for, after all, should he be off-key or make a mistake, I will fall with him—rather, my conviction is it is proper for me to keep my own eyes first on God, the quarterback of this choir of beautifully croaking angels, and my connection with his incarnate presence in the music he has placed in front of me. In this way, with each of us attentive first to God alone, we stand a better chance of truly projecting together the voice of one Heart, incarnate as the same Spirit of Love in each of us.
I have taken the reflection further: what happens when I lose my focus and lapse in my responsibility to the team to bring my full presence and energy to the liturgy? Suppose I’m an offensive lineman in the game of football; in that case, if I don’t know the playbook or otherwise lapse in proper attention to fulfilling my blocking assignment within that play, I am all but guaranteed to let the opponent into the backfield, putting my quarterback or running back in the vulnerable position of getting creamed by a huge defensive lineman or linebacker coming in with a full head of steam. Alternatively, if I am a wide receiver and run the wrong route, I risk causing my team a turnover by interception. Either way, the play becomes a broken play and is not carried out according to the dream of its intended design. Score one for the bad guys.
In the spiritual life, it seems to me it is the same. I feel it is important that I bring my full presence, care, and intentionality to the choir, and to the life as a whole, or I am similarly letting the enemy ‘into the backfield’ of our life and our communal Heart, and leaving the door open to him to disrupt our more perfect communion as a group and Christ’s singular dream for us as a community fully alive in the fullest manifestation of his glory in us.
Speaking then of presence, and attention, and intentionality, I return to my question of how best to direct my attention to God in singing a particular hymn of our liturgy. In spite of my inexperience, realizing I am susceptible to just as much error, and worse, an inauthentic posture of life/singing when choosing to attend my ear first to the voice of those around me, as opposed to God incarnate in the music itself and in my heart, I have reflected on what that means for a more appropriate channeling of my attention and intention. (Of course, it is never completely an either/or, but a matter of priority I am seeking to emphasize here.)
If God is giving himself to me in the music, what does it mean for me to give myself to God in return. I have been inspired to give myself to each of the notes whole and entire, as Christ would call me to do if they each were a person in front me; what this meant was to attend to each individual note with my full attention and presence, so as to give them the full dignity of their presence on the page in givenness to me. What I discovered in this experience was indeed something more fully connected and beautiful, but also an interesting dynamic I did not expect. For as the one note comes, so another note immediately follows, and so at least in some sense it is impossible to give my attention unreservedly to one note without at once being open to and aware of the next note to come in the chain. For if I ignore the following note…death to the music! Rather, to hear the full score of music, I have to at once be open to the following note and to have the faith so-to-speak to ultimately let go of the first note to embrace the second, and so on.
This inspired my reflections about life in general and the gift of attention I give to others. First, it is a gift to connect, and I pray anew for an increased grace to give others the dignity they deserve as God’s beloved children through the gift of my full attention and presence, as I was inspired to do with the music. Secondly, what does it truly mean to connect, and as I do so, how do I simultaneously listen for the living music of God that goes beyond that particular moment of connection? As we connect with those nearest to us, how do we at once keep our hearts open in faith to the larger life of community that extends beyond the immediate kinship of those particular connections—of what becomes our particular group?…such that connection does not become closed in on itself as if a singular note detached from a larger piece of music, versus connecting while simultaneously perceiving where the movement of our connection is desiring to go next in the heart of God. While it is right to be critical of the kind of multi-tasking that makes real presence and connection impossible to begin with, it seems at once we must honor that by nature the Living Spirit of God has a certain demand of a more holy multi-tasking written into it, into our very being – the kind of multitasking that allows us to connect with whatever is in front of us at present while simultaneously being open to the music of where relational dynamism wishes to take us next.
I recall in a powerful film we invite our retreatants to watch called The Pursuit of Silence a particular scene in which it discusses multi-tasking and that it has been discovered that human beings really only have the capacity for multitasking in line with the ‘golden Phi ratio’, 1.618. I could be misremembering the clip, but what I grasp is that our minds have the capacity to be open to about two thirds of a second activity while simultaneously being present to another primary activity. Perhaps this can speak to this more subconscious processing that seems written into our human wiring that must be working in all of us to keep in touch with the ongoing movement of God even as we give our conscious awareness more wholeheartedly to that which we are present to with the immediate activity at hand. Perhaps this is only more reason to avoid conscious multitasking, because it noisily crowds out this more subtle subconscious perceptive capacity that allows us to be attentive to where we are being led, beyond that which is immediately present to our conscious awareness.
Whether this understanding applies or not, let’s be sure not to cut ourselves off from God’s more full rendition of Life on his cosmic guitar, by being closed in on ourselves, but in a good holy Catholic “both/and” kind of fashion, may we both be present to one another in full connection while while at once remaining open to the larger picture of life and of God. It is fascinating to reflect here that the deer of the psalms doesn’t just long for streams, but running streams! The Life of God is always moving, and so then ought our contemplation of Him to be!
All this talk of music inspires me to share a hymn I wrote a few months after I arrived in the monastery, to the tune of one of my favorites from Midday prayer, “Blest Are the Pure in Heart.” Just because I don’t know music perfectly doesn’t mean I can’t put prayerful writing/Scripture to music that has already been fashioned! I invite you to smile with me in all its wonderful tonal imperfection as the learning curve and my love for God proceeds forth. Together, let us lift up our hearts to God, and praise his Holy Name.