Roundup: Virtual Advent concerts, dreams deferred, pop-up floral memorials, and more

The Christmas–Epiphany 2020/21 edition of the Daily Prayer Project [previously], a publication I work for part-time, released this week! The cover image is from the sanctuary mural at Holy Angels Catholic Church in Chicago, by Cameroonian artist-priest Engelbert Mveng. (See the full mural here.) Also in this edition are images of Grace Carol Bomer’s From Strength to Strength, showing Light stepping into darkness, and the Piper-Reyntiens stained glass window in Coventry Cathedral, with its yellow sunburst amid an abstract pattern of reds, blues, and greens. We include visual art as a supplement to the prayers, scripture readings, and songs with the understanding that it, too, can promote spiritual development and a deeper communion with God.

You can purchase a digital copy (PDF) of the Christmas–Epiphany edition (December 24–February 16) through the website, and if in the future you’d like to receive hard copies, starting with Lent 2021, you can become a monthly subscriber. Part of the money goes to supporting artists.

On a related note: My colleagues at the DPP have curated an excellent Spotify playlist, “DPP Advent Songbook,” that is reflective of the types of music featured in the prayerbooks (in the form of simplified lead sheets, typically four songs per edition). Check it out!

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Whenever I see a Helena Sorensen [previously] byline, I perk up, because I always find myself connecting so much with her writing. She’s a regular contributor to the Rabbit Room blog. Her two most recent posts are “Things Fall Apart” and “Advent, Week One: Hope.” They’re both great.

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Unburden: A Virtual Interactive Exhibit, December 4, 2020–January 8, 2021: The Gallery at W83 is part of a 45,000-square-foot cultural center built by Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan’s Upper West Side as a service to the city’s artists and larger community. W83 Events and Programming Director Eva Ting has curated a virtual exhibition of photographs and stories from Kristina Libby’s Floral Heart Project, a series of living memorials to those lost to or suffering from COVID-19. Libby initiated the project in New York City in May, partnering with 1800Flowers.com to place floral heart garlands all around the city to create space for ceremony and to invite the community to process and mourn. The project has since grown nationwide.

“Many of us are carrying burdens of loss, anxiety, and uncertainty as we move towards the end of 2020,” Ting writes. “We have all been impacted in some way by the events of this year, and we bear fatigue weighed heavier by the inability to gather as a community to collectively grieve. In this interactive virtual exhibit Unburden, the Gallery at W83 invites you to participate in an unburdening of the load we carry.”

The exhibition webpage invites you to release personal burdens by writing down any grief, fears, loss, or anxiety you wish to let go of (can be submitted anonymously if desired). These words will be incorporated into a new floral heart laying on December 20 at Fort Tryon Park, an event that will be livestreamed. You can also ask for prayer, and members of the W83 team will pray for your requests. “Through these individual and collective acts of unburdening, may we imagine what it would look like to truly let go of these burdens.”

Floral Heart Project (Brooklyn Bridge)
Photo by Erica Reade

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I enjoyed attending the virtual “Songs of Hope: A TGC Advent Concert,” featuring music and spoken-word performances from a variety of artists (see YouTube description), interspersed with Advent readings. It was a truly meaningful worship experience.

I’m sure there are many more virtual Advent/Christmas concerts and other online events coming up. What ones are you most looking forward to?

One that I’ll probably be tuning in to is “We Three Queens Holiday Show” by Pegasis, a sister trio, on December 17, 8:30 p.m. EST (7:30 p.m. CST). It will be live on Facebook and and Instagram. (Update, 12/17/20: View the performance here. My favorite two songs are probably “Poncho Andino” at 19:04 and “Mary Had a Baby” at 45:24—such a unique arrangement!)

There’s also “A Candlelit (Virtual) Room: The Advent Christmas Music of Ben Thomas” on December 11 and 12 (10 p.m. EST and 8 p.m. EST, respectively), two private Zoom concerts open to the first twenty-five registrants each. He’ll be performing original songs from his albums The Bewildering Light, The Wilderness Voice, and Peace Here, all of which I recommend. My favorite tracks: “Justice Will Sprout from the Ground,” “Zechariah and the Least Expected Places,” and “Shepherds and Angels.” (The latter two were recorded under the name So Elated.)

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POEM: “Harlem” by Langston Hughes: This is a brilliant poem—its sensory images, its rhythm, its rhyme, its multivalence (especially the last line). I loved it so much when I first read it in ninth grade that I memorized it unbidden. When writer and podcaster Joy Clarkson posted a reflection on the poem for her Patreon community in October, resulting in a lively conversation thread in the comments section, it reignited my enthusiasm for and got me thinking more deeply about “Harlem.” She opened by quoting Proverbs 13:12: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, / But desire fulfilled is a tree of life.”

“What happens to a dream deferred? // Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?” Written in 1951 as part of a sequence of poems exploring black life in Harlem, “Harlem” is inextricably tied to the civic discourse of the contemporary American moment, writes Scott Challener in Poetry Foundation’s guide to the poem. The “dream” he refers to is the so-called American Dream, unattainable for so many due to racial inequalities and oppression. (Also assigned in the ninth-grade English curriculum is Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, which takes its title from and addresses the questions of “Harlem.”)

While not wishing to strip the poem of its specific context, I have been thinking about all the dreams that have been deferred this year—put on hold, or even irretrievably lost, because of COVID-19. Hughes posits a string of descriptive similes for a deferred dream: a dried-up raisin, a festering sore, rotting meat, a crusted-over sweet, a sagging load. One commenter on Joy’s Patreon observed how a raisin can’t turn back into a grape, rotten meat can’t be made fresh again, and an overcooked dessert can’t be cooked back down (though perhaps the burnt bits could be scraped off), but a sore can heal and a load can be lifted.

The final suggestion—“or does it explode?”—can be read in myriad ways. In one respect it could refer to the explosion of cultural output, of creativity, that results from deferred dreams—i.e., the Harlem Renaissance. I’ve definitely seen this happen this year, as people, in the face of crushing personal and professional disappointments, have found unique ways to come together and produce and share works of beauty within the restrictiveness of health and safety protocols. One example—speaking of Harlem—is the Dance Theatre of Harlem, a groundbreaking neoclassical ballet company founded at the height of the civil rights movement in 1969 and still active today. Bans on gatherings of certain numbers have meant that dancers and other performers have had to find alternative ways of reaching their audiences, so DTH artists Derek Brockington and Alexandra Hutchinson created “Dancing Through Harlem,” taking choreography from Robert Garland’s “New Bach” out into the streets and capturing it on video for people to enjoy from home. To help support the DTH during this time, you can donate easily through the fundraising sidebar on the video’s YouTube page or through the company’s website.

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SONG: “400 Years” by Sarah Sparks: This original song, sung with Kate Lab, appears on Sarah Sparks’s new album, Advent, Pt. One. It’s about how the centuries-long silence of God between the ministry of Malachi (ca. 420 BCE) and the appearance of John the Baptist in the early first century CE was broken with the birth of Jesus—the Word made flesh. Its refrain, “For the first time, not a silent night,” cleverly turns on its head the sweet, familiar carol “Silent Night.” Through the incarnation, God spoke to all who would listen.

Roundup: Santo Spirito, Joan of Arc, “Halo My Path,” and more

VIDEO: “Ned Bustard: Making Good”: Cursive Films profiles Ned Bustard [previously], a graphic designer, linocut artist, and founder of Square Halo Books. Asked how he as a Christian defines success in his field, he responds with a quote by his friend Kurt Thompson: “We were made in joy to make things in and for joy.” So instead of asking, “Am I successful?,” we should be asking ourselves, “Am I doing what I was designed to do?,” Bustard says.

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ESSAY: “I’d Like to Learn to Love It Anyway” by Helena Sorensen: In this personal essay from the Rabbit Room, Sorensen reflects on the world’s brokenness and beauty, a world where there is grief and disappointment and uncertainty and scarring but also love and springtime and strength and song. She opens by recounting her eleven-year-old son’s very visceral feeling of pain in reaction to the death of a baby bird, and his exasperated “What’s the point of it all?” She then introduces a song that crystallizes her son’s struggle—“Letter to the Editor” by J Lind—while sharing her own struggles, since adolescence, to accept her body. There’s no theodicy here, no theological explanations for suffering; just an aspiration to live with openness and gratitude and perspective, and to take the bad along with the good, the cost of being human.

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NEW POEM: “Santo Spirito” by Jacqueline Osherow: (Read the poem before reading my commentary; I don’t want the latter to influence your first impressions!) Osherow is Jewish and also a lover of Renaissance art, having previously lived in Florence for a year and a half. And she has been enamored of birds since childhood. These influences coincide in her long free-verse poem “Santo Spirito” (Italian for “Holy Spirit”), subtitled “Autobiography with Doves.” Here she traces the presence, and sometimes absence, of the dove as symbol of the Holy Spirit in Italian master paintings of the Annunciation and the Baptism of Christ. Osherow said she does not read the New Testament but experiences Christian narrative and theology through art, which has “been working / on me all along, its proselytizing / deftly subliminal // like the edgy / come-ons urban / legend claims / were strategically / concealed in / advertisements.” (Still, she says, “I remain a Jew, . . . no matter / what I look at, what / I see.”)

Santo Spirito
Basilica di Santo Spirito, Florence

The poem is a reflection on divine revelation and hiddenness, precision and mystery, the visible and invisible. Where and how does God’s spirit reside? What is holy, or can we say only when we encounter it? The poem hinges on the fifteenth-century Florentine church the poem takes its title from. Santo Spirito has a strikingly plain façade, a “supple blankness / wide-open, burning, / immaculate, . . . infinite,” like an unrolled scroll without writing. After a catalog of religious art that pictures and describes, Osherow pauses in front of this emptiness that is likewise inviting. Yes to artists’ visions, she says, to doves and other literalisms, to the transcription and translation of God’s word, to apologetic discourse and theologizing, to bumbling our way toward truth—but yes also to the way of unknowing.

My junior year of college I, too, lived in Florence—just a few minutes’ walk from Santo Spirito, in fact—so this poem is full of memories for me, and I love Osherow’s candid reflections on specific artworks in the city:

Plus these two:

  • The Baptism of Christ by Piero della Francesca, made for the Priory of San Giovanni Battista at Sansepolcro in Tuscany, now in the National Gallery, London
  • The Annunciation panel of an altarpiece Piero della Francesca made for the Franciscan convent of Sant’Antonio da Padova in Perugia, now in the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria

Jacqueline Osherow read her poem recently for an Image-sponsored Zoom event followed by a Q&A (video link available on poem page). There were supposed to be photo slides of the paintings keyed to relevant stanzas, but the display doesn’t correct until 8:03.

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NEW SONG: “Halo My Path” by Josh Rodriguez: The words to this “quarantine chorale” are excerpted and adapted from a Puritan prayer titled “Voyage,” from the compilation The Valley of Vision. Composer Josh Rodriguez said he wrote the song “as I watched the bravery of medical professionals, the difficult decisions that government leaders faced, the disproportionate suffering of the poor, the unrest in my own heart. . . . I hope this prayer will challenge us to fight against the selfishness that resides in our hearts, to persevere in the long road to recovery, to appreciate once again that simple privilege of life together.” I’m grateful to Rodriguez for throwing this beautiful phrase into high relief: “Halo my path,” an address to God. Make bright my way, sanctify it, illuminate it with gentleness and love so that my every step is into the light of these virtues, not into the darkness of causticity and hate. The song is an aspiration to bless, to sow gladness rather than grief.

Halo my path with gentleness and love,
smooth every temper;
let me not forget how easy it is to occasion grief;
may I strive to bind up every wound,
and pour oil on all troubled waters.
May the world be happier because I live.
Halo my path.

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NEW ALBUM: Peace to All Who Enter Here by Josh Garrels: A mix of calming hymns and worship songs, including two previously unreleased originals: “Fear Thou Not” and “Creation Song.” I’ve long had a strong emotional connection to the opening song, “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus,” so I was hooked from the beginning!

“in the month of march the world entered a time of quarantine,” Josh’s wife Michelle writes on the album’s Bandcamp page. “our life of work- and school-from-home continued basically as usual. but beyond the boundaries of our yard, the world was rapidly shifting. instinctively for us, it was a time to pray & praise. when we enter into praise in times of uncertainty, we feel God’s goodness, the everything in His hands. His peace is a real, sustaining thing. josh began these days by firelight in the garage, mornings of prayer while winter melted away into hopeful spring. in the afternoons he’d turn on the recording gear & sing out praises. You’ll hear the click of the wood stove, the chirping of birds, our five children playing in the front yard. there was a spontaneity to this recording, & the result is sweet. . . . we hope you encounter the peace of Christ as you enter here, finding hope & faith restored in these turbulent times.”

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FILMS

May 30 is the feast day of Joan of Arc, a French peasant girl who, during the Hundred Years’ War, claimed to have received visions from God instructing her to fight against English domination. She participated in military campaigns with the French army but was eventually captured and, after a trial financed by the English crown, burned at the stake. She was later sainted.

Joan of Arc has been the subject of many films. Here are two I’ve seen, both of which abandon glamorous military heroics to focus instead on some of the less flashy parts of her life, with Jeannette being set during her preadolescence, and The Passion during her trial.

Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (2017): A thrash metal period musical is certainly a unique approach to take for Joan’s story, and this movie is . . . eccentric. It shows Joan, played by nonprofessional actors at ages eight and thirteen, as a shepherd girl in rural France, deeply pained by the English oppression of her people. “Our Father who art in heaven, your name is so far from being hallowed, and your reign from coming,” she laments. Pious beyond her years, she struggles to discern God’s will, and once she does, to follow it. She’s helped along by visions of the nun Madame Gervaise—whom writer-director Bruno Dumont splits into two singing, dancing figures played by twins—and others.

While this could just be an art-house filmmaker trying to push the envelope, I feel that the ridiculousness serves a function: we furrow our brows and roll our eyes and wonder if it’s for real, much like those contemporaries of Joan’s who, to put it mildly, had trouble getting on board with her odd story.

The dialogue is adapted from Charles Péguy’s 1910 mystery play The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928): Starring Renée Falconetti in a legendary performance, this silent film classic paints Joan as a Christ figure who’s mocked and martyred for her refusal to betray God’s will. There are allusions throughout to Christ’s passion: shadows form a cross on the wall; Joan weaves a crown of straw; there’s a bloodletting scene; et cetera. Expressionistic lighting and painfully intimate close-ups immerse viewers in Joan’s subjective experience. (As a sidebar, I must note that Falconetti was thirty-five when she played the role, whereas Joan was only nineteen; I think because Falconetti’s portrayal is so iconic, people often forget how young Joan was.)

Director Carl Theodor Dreyer was very concerned with documentary authenticity, so he enlisted the leading expert on Joan of Arc, Pierre Champion, as a historical adviser on the film. The script is based heavily on transcripts of Joan’s trial and execution, which are held at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. The French ecclesiastical court, allied with the English, press Joan on the authenticity of her visions, her certainty of salvation, her support of Charles VII, her wearing of men’s clothing; she continues to insist that she is fulfilling the mission God called her to. Though the historical Joan was subjected to twenty-two interrogation sessions spread out over a few months, by necessity the movie telescopes them into a brief timespan.

Many composers have written scores for the film. The Criterion release gives three options: Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light oratorio, which takes a traditional, maximalist approach; a score by Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory and Portishead’s Adrian Utley, utilizing electric guitars, voices, synthesizers, brass, harp, and percussion; and a minimalist piano score by Mie Yanashita. However, purists say the film should be watched in silence, as Dreyer preferred.