I awoke three minutes to the hour on Thursday morning, June 11th. My radio alarm clock was playing the local classical station. They had just enough time for one piece before the hourly news. The host announced: “Up next, Felix Mendelssohn’s Auf Flügeln des Gesanges, or “On Wings of Song,” in an arrangement for cello and piano."
I lay there listening as I recalled quite vividly a time when I was sitting in the chapel of a Lutheran college campus listening to a cellist and pianist perform J. S. Bach’s Arioso. I had been attending a summer music camp, preparing to enter my senior year of high school. From the very first bow stroke of their performance, I found myself both deeply and instinctively overwhelmed with something I don’t know what else to call than gratitude. For a moment, one beautiful, too-short moment, I dwelled nowhere but in those entrancing sonorities. I breathed with the slow, underlying pulse of the piano accompaniment. My thoughts stopped short to hear the subtle, expressive intensity of the cello’s vibrato on each sustained note. I journeyed with the rise and fall of the melody line through major nuances, then minor, then major again. It was a sonorous journey both balanced and satisfying, one which carried me along as though I were among its most valued recipients.
Do you know David Adler’s Cam Jansen mystery stories? Cam is a mystery detective with a photographic memory. She blinks her eyes and says, “Click,” when she wants to remember something. Sitting in that chapel, I blinked my eyes to remember it intentionally as a time when I didn’t want to be anywhere else. Every aspect of that moment fed my soul: the familiar, sacred space of a church nave; the reassuring fellowship of a Christian community; the inspiring example of dedicated artistry; the certainty of the present in spite of an uncertain future. Unresisting, I drank deeply.
The memories of that moment swirled in my mind as Mendelssohn’s piece floated out into my bedroom. When it was over, I turned off the radio and opened to the Treasury psalm for the day, Psalm 34. It begins:
I will bless the LORD at all times;
his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the LORD;
let the humble hear and be glad.
(Ps. 34:1-2, ESV)
I grabbed one of Martin Luther’s psalm commentaries. Of the soul’s boasting from a place of humility, Luther comments: “[I]t is a sweet business to ponder and magnify your Creator and to say, ‘Behold, I am the creature of so great a Lord! How happy I am that my Creator is such a person, that such a person has given me such things and such great things! They are much more pleasing because so great a person gave them than if I had them of myself.” Later, the Psalmist writes: “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!” (v. 8). These are the verbs of a receptive posture: hearing, tasting, seeing. How good indeed to reflect on the earthly glimpse I believe I had into the heavenly picture of the Creator blessing the creature that summer day in that college chapel. With Josef Pieper, I think leisure is truest in reception such as this: being still, receiving refreshment in the everyday gifts of our loving, generous Lord, and recalling the promises of an ever-attending God who is not only good, but is Himself goodness, beauty, wisdom, and truth.