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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.

 

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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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It’s all around us, shriveling our spirits: the killing winds of the election frenzy, theprotracted bombing of Mosul, the sterile dispatching of unwanted babies, the wanton garroting of truth-seekers, the covert erasing of embarrassing truth, the procrustean lopping off of imagination, the programmed mauling of the Core Curriculum, and the list goes on …

Such is the outgrowth of hedonism, secularism, and materialism that continues candy-coating its evil through the social media. All of life is trivialized, left vapid, and fed by such reports as Kate Middleton’s twenty-one outfits, disparaged by the Queen.

Other than unplug, turn off cell phones, have meals at home, monitor our thinking, and discern the drift of our choices, what can we do?

It’s about waking up to who we really are: persons created in the image and likeness of God. Such requires taking time apart from the madness, listening to our breathing, plunging into our depths and remaining there, even if awkward. From this very darkness begins to emerge a different voice, one that corrects, consoles, and counsels. If receptive enough, an inner authority, one we learn to trust, sends fresh cues. Obeying them produces a vibrancy that warms our hearts and others. No longer do we expose them to the seductive madness around us, no longer addicted to “the religion of rush,” as the Irish seer, John O’Donohue has said.

Thus guided, we co-create with our God.

 

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