In the Presence of Greatness

The ancient Greeks thought that certain men were divine, such as Pythagoras, Apollonius of Tyana, Alexander the Great, and in Homer, the great warrior Diomedes was called divine.  Other than Jesus, I am not one to deify human beings.  But I think I know what the Greeks were getting at.  A few times in my life, I’ve been in the presence of humans who affected me with such power that it was almost divine.

I just returned home from a concert by the Tallis Scholars.  They sang late Renaissance/early Baroque music a capella.  I listened breathlessly as the counterpoint melded into harmonies and phrases were tossed from bass to soprano, intricate cadences and all perfectly in tune and with perfect rhythm.  It wasn’t only the music, it was also the performance.  I have Renaissance music on my iPod,–in fact, I have recordings of the Tallis Scholars themselves.  But listening to these recordings don’t do what that concert did.  I was in the presence of greatness–in the compositions they sung and the way they sung them.

I’ve been in the presence of greatness before, without getting the impact this concert gave me.  I’ve seen Bob Dylan in concert, an awful concert at that, Santana, a good concert, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer three times, and others.  I saw Steve Martin walking around in a New York art gallery.  But I wasn’t transported like I was at the Tallis Scholars concert.

The first time I heard Handel’s Messiah in the city I now live in was one of those experiences.  I alternated between heartfelt smile and tears of joy.  I went a second time a year later and the performance didn’t make such an impression on me.  This is going to sound funny, but another time I felt that power was at a bicycle race.  I stood near the finish line.  So I saw the cyclists in the last quarter mile.  That’s when they opened up.  In the home stretch, the cyclists gave it all.  Seeing those men giving 100% almost brought me to tears.  Another time I was at a Latin music festival and onstage there were four dancers giving it.  Watching them, too, made an impression on me.

I drove home from the Tallis Scholars wondering why I worried about things like money, traffic, material possessions, the worldly preoccupations I’m driven to pursue.  Seeing such a perfect dedication to art took me into another space, a special place, a holy place.

Worship and the Limits of Reason

I have had few instances when music has really affected me in a worshipful way, and taken over my consciousness.   I don’t mean the times when I listen to Beethoven’s 9th, and I am moved to tears.  Or when I respectfully listen to Bach’s B-minor Mass, and am moved.  No.  Recently I have experienced Handel’s Messiah and choked back the tears through the whole concert, when I wasn’t smiling with happiness.  And just a few nights ago, I attended part of a worship service at a Sikh Gudwara and found the experience overwhelming.

By virtue of my membership in an interfaith organization, I am able to travel to different places of worship and learn about their religion and experience, sometimes, their rituals (and eat their food).  Upon entering the worship space of the Gudwara, we went to the front and did obeisance.  That meant I knelt down and bowed my forehead to the ground.  The power of that gesture was astounding.  I got right back up, but afterward felt I wanted to have remained bowed down longer.  Then I sat down on the floor, and listened to the trio playing Indian ragas.  We were invited to pray to whatever God we worshipped.  I started off with my customary thinking, but very shortly was overwhelmed by a feeling of forgiveness and religious ecstasy.  I drank in the repeated musical motifs of the ragas as if I were chanting.  And my mind emptied as my soul allowed the worshipful experience to happen in it.  I even had an inner vision of Christ on the cross, although my tradition celebrates the risen Christ.

My own faith is about as rationalistic as faith can get.  But my experience of the Gudwara and also other places like a Ukrainian Orthodox Church have suggested to me that rationalism can only go so far.  The power of good ritual can last even after the ritual is over.  I can still mentally go back to the Gudwara experience as its sublime remains in my consciousness, soul, and heart.  And I can remember my startled feelings when I stepped out of the Ukrainian Church, with all its icons, into the ordinary world.  How drab and lifeless everything looked.  My Protestant faith taught me that religion resides in the mind; and it taught me to be suspicious of external rituals.  But I don’t think it got it all right in that.  There is immense power in ritual.  And there are limits to reason.