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How often will an April freeze scorch a lilac shrub of its regal display? Or brown a full-blown magnolia tree, reducing it to widow’s weeds? Or blister-winds knife blossoms from apple trees and pastiche the ground with snowy whiteness? Or drenching rains wash away tender roots of newly planted annuals? Such losses burn, leave a sour taste.

Such feelings glimmer beneath the opening lines of T. S. Eliot’s elegy, The Waste Land (1922): “April is the cruelest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land mixing/ Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain.”

It’s all about yearning, about holding onto glimpses of Beauty, whether experienced in nature, in loved ones, or in pets. Within these richly nuanced moments, we catch our breath, perhaps pick up pen or watercolor brush and set to work. For students of such industry, a trail emerges that evidences the expression of unstoppable Life, despite continuous setbacks, even death. The challenge is to begin, yet again, hopefully wiser until the next in-breaking of Beauty that stirs our roots with spring rain.

 

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Shuddering gripped our souls as the mixed a capella choir of multiple voices burst into “Priidite, poklonimysa” – (“Come, Let Us Worship),” the first of fifteen Russian hymns of the Vespers/All Night Vigil Service, composed by Sergio Rachmaninoff in 1915. Even the floorboards of the old St. Stanislaus Koska Church in North St. Louis reverberated under our feet. We were in the presence of the Sacred.

Who was this artist who had crafted jeweled harmonies around ancient chants from the thousand-year-old Russian Orthodox liturgy, who interspersed folk songs within the fabric of these hymns, who challenged his singers toward difficult ranges—both soprano and basso profondo? What occurred in Rachmaninoff’s psyche that compelled its composition in less than two weeks? Its first performance in Moscow was a fundraiser for his beleaguered country at war with Germany in World War I.

No doubt he was also sensitive to the disturbing undercurrents that would usher in the 1917 Revolution with its decades of atrocities.

Perhaps Rachmaninoff hoped his Vespers/All Night Vigil would stay the course of evil, but it did not.

Nevertheless to quote S. L. Frank, Russian philosopher, survivor, and author of The Meaning of Life (1925), “The process of transfiguration, of illumination and deification of the world and of human souls is achieved through suffering, for suffering is…the indispensable weapon with which to overcome evil. The victory of goodness can only be achieved through suffering.”

Rachmaninoff seems to echo this truth in his Vespers/All Night Vigil. It can be experienced on YouTube.

 

It is New Year’s Eve.

Womb-like stillness exudes peace as I head outdoors. My flashlight plays in front of my steps, revealing shriveled leaves and twigs and gumballs on the sidewalk. Halogen streetlights impress limpid pools of yellow upon this dark world. Christmas lights hug tree trunks and drape specter branches. Wreathes with blinking lights adorn front doors. A spotlight casts a larger-than-life outline of a crèche onto a plank fence that heralds this centuries-old event. I smile. From somewhere, fumes from a log fire permeate the air.

As moist breezes freshen my cheeks, I move up the hill toward another oasis of yellow; within it, a jumble of cars crowds several driveways, and further on, a battered pick-up. From a bay window shimmers a tinseled tree. And in the next a block a drooping Scotch pine sits tilted upon a front lawn, awaiting removal by the yard waste collection.

I pause. What is it about darkness that prompts us to fill it with light? Does darkness not have its own richness, its own texture, its lessons—both material and spiritual?

Against such a field of darkness the crescent moon waxes tonight, and I’m moved by the text from Isaiah, 45: 7: “I form the light and create the darkness…” Both have value if we seek it.

 

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