Beauty in unexpected places
By most measures, he was nondescript: a youngish white man in blue jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play.
On an ordinary Friday morning in January 2007, at the L’Enfant Metro station (Washington DC), a violinist performed six classical pieces. By count, 1,097 people passed by in the gray rush of modernity. In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped. About 20 gave him money, but the others continued to walk their normal pace. The violinist collected $32.
The violinist began with Bach’s partita No 2 in D minor (haunting and heart-rending), on a Stradivarius violin (crafted in 1713) worth 3.5 million dollars.
Who was this unrecognized mendicant?
Joshua Bell, one of the preeminent (and most famous, not to mention good-looking) musicians in the entire world. (Joshua’s performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment to see if people would actually stop and notice beauty in unexpected places.)
Would a crowd gather?
Would people turn off their cell phones or even willingly miss their train?
Would people slow down, be late for work, inexplicably drawn in to the music?
The answer is no.
Or, let’s make it personal… would I ignore the clamor and din around me, and allow for (and be fed by) the sanctuary in the presence of beauty? In the sacrament of the present moment?
We see what we expect to see.
We hear what we want to hear.
And we experience what we anticipate we will experience.
And we do it with all the instinctiveness of breathing.
We do not expect to see a world-class musician on the side of the road, so we don’t see him, even if he is there.
And in our world today, where we are reminded how easily beauty and life as we know it can be unraveled, wrecked, even destroyed, my confession is that especially this week, I needed to watch Joshua Bell…
I needed respite from the noise of the world…
Though I’ll admit, there is a cynical part of me that wants to chide the Post for such an experiment. Of course, busy commuters will fail to stop and notice.
You see, I needed the reminder that this kind of experiment is not new. Lawrence Kushner writes that a similar test was tried a few thousand years ago. Kushner suggests that the “burning bush” was not a miracle. It was a test. God wanted to find out whether or not Moses could pay attention to something for more than a few minutes. When Moses did pay attention, God spoke.
The trick is to pay attention to what is going on around you long enough, to behold the miracle.
But then, Moses wasn’t hindered by his iPhone.
I’m sure I would have stopped, I tell myself. I would have paid attention.
But, that could be wishful thinking.
And yet, I have that choice. Every single day. It may not be a Stradivarius, but it is the music of God, nonetheless.
I just re-watched the YouTube video of Joshua’s “performance.” And here’s the wonderful curious part: the most attention comes from a 3-year-old boy. His mother is hurried, dragging the boy along. Even so, the kid stops, to look at the violinist. Finally, you see the mother push, and the child continues to walk, all the while turning his head to listen to the music.
Throughout the video, it is the children who stop.
And all the parents, without exception, force them to move on.
The poet Billy Collins once noted that all babies are born with knowledge of poetry, because the lub-dub of the mother’s heart is in iambic meter. Then, life slowly starts to choke the poetry out of us.
It may be true with music too.
I would like to think that there is enough of a three-year-old in me that I would have stopped.
Even if only for a moment.
Just enough to be fed by music and beauty.
To take that gift with me into the day.
This week our world shook with the invasion of Ukraine.
And we were confronted with our sense of helplessness…
And our need for a paradigm shift. From big world to small world.
You see, the big world feels, often overwhelming and outside of our ability to change or affect change. On so many big world issues people give up. “It’s not my problem, after all.”
But the small world (ala Joshua Bell) is right in front of me. And the small world invites me to be present for the sacred (burning bush). Which means I’m present to see people, before anxieties… people with faces and names. People with real tangible emotions, fears, exhilaration, joys and burdens. When I start with the person, I put down my labels or tendency to prejudge, now open to learning, growing, giving, caring, healing. (We’ll talk more about this in SM Daily.)
On the church calendar, a blessed Lenten season to you. Lent (to lengthen, or to get ourselves ready) for Holy Week. So, it’s a time to set some things (that derail or disconnect us) down.
Do you remember the story from John’s Gospel, “I once was blind, but now I see.” Maybe we all begin there. To acknowledge our own blindness. To remove the cataracts from our souls, by letting go of what we expect to find before we begin the search. For Lent, I want to give up my own willful blindness.
And maybe… Sit still. Pay attention. And listen for the violinist.
In 2014 Joshua appeared again at L’Enfant. This time advertised. This time with press coverage. And large, eager crowds. So, one wonders, why does a miracle require press coverage?
Sabbath Moment friend Kenneth Wickline, of Garland, TX, passed away peacefully surrounded by family on February 20, 2022. RIP Kenny.
Our prayers for the people of Ukraine.
Instead of a cold-open sketch, “Saturday Night Live” began with the Ukrainian Chorus Dumka of New York singing the hymn “Prayer for Ukraine,” solemnly introduced by Kate McKinnon and Cecily Strong.
Quote for the week…
If I were to begin life again, I should
want it as it was. I would only
open my eyes a little more.
SABBATH MOMENT BULLETIN BOARD
Today’s Photo Credit: “Dear Terry: I have been following your sabbath moments for several years now. A friend here in Boulder, Colorado introduced me to them. I started when you were on Vashon Island where I used to have some good friends. Then you and they moved and now I think of you in your new location still in the gorgeous pacific northwest. Just knowing where you are makes me happy because it is so beautiful there! Thank you for your daily messages for the mind and soul. I am inspired by your words and the photos of others which you share. During these Covid times I live a double life: sometimes in Colorado my home state, and in Seattle where most of my family is now located. I am sending this photo of Mt. Baker (which I am sure you know). I took it earlier this year where I snowshoed with my son up to Artist’s Point. This was on a brilliant hallelujah day of sun, snow and azure sky. Reminded me of a Ziggy card: ‘O God, You have outdone Yourself!’ This goes along with your message for today: ‘To be spiritual is to be amazed.’ Thanks for your inspiration.” Pat Peterson… Thank you Pat… Keep sending your photos… send to firstname.lastname@example.org
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Letters that do my heart good…
–Thank you, Terry, for this message so desperately needed. I have found myself becoming cynical in spite of the remarkable role models who lead us toward hope. People like Paul Farmer must live on in our memory and in the small world ways we can gather and spread in our tortured world. Blessings, Patti
–Thank you, Terry. You spoke to me as if I had just opened my heart and mind to you. I can’t fully grasp this new horror going on in Ukraine. The devastation of so many lives. Why? To what end? At the same time, in Denver, my young niece underwent a 5 hour surgery yesterday to prepare her for an even more complex surgery on Monday. Talking to my brother last night, I used the word “helpless,” which you addressed in this morning’s SM. So you spoke directly to what I needed to hear, to embrace, to live today.
Peace, my friend, Mick
POEMS AND PRAYERS
The idea that some lives matter less
is the root of all that is wrong with the world.
Dr. Paul Farmer
We pray for an end to the injustices
that become breeding grounds of war.
We pray for the restoration of fellowship
and the building of integrity.
We pray for commitment
to the unedging struggle against selfish ways
and violation of human dignity.
We pray for that peace
which is the full blossoming
of our life together.
Lord, the Air Smells Good Today
Lord, the air smells good today,
straight from the mysteries
within the inner courts of God.
A grace like new clothes thrown
across the garden, free medicine for everybody.
The trees in their prayer, the birds in praise,
the first blue violets kneeling.
Whatever came from Being is caught up in
forgetting the way back.
Rumi (13th Century)