From: Music As Prayer
When I was a teenager, I purchased a copy of a book about J. S. Bach and his music. In the back of the volume, just before the catalogue of his works, were pictures of autograph manuscripts, period etchings of the composer, and some black and white photographs of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig where Bach served as cantor from 1723 until his death in 1750. When I was learning his flute sonatas, I would often open the book to those photographs and etchings and imagine myself playing with Bach accompanying me. It was a fantasy that drew me deeper into the delight I took in his music, and out of it grew the dream that one day I would visit St. Thomas Church and hear some of Bach’s music played in the building where the master himself had performed and conducted. For me, St. Thomas Church was always the top travel spot on this planet. Several years ago, I took a study tour and finally visited the hallowed building, participating in a service of prayer that featured a Bach cantata.
But St. Thomas is not the only place I visited. The day before I walked into the church, I visited Buchenwald, one of the Nazi concentration camps, just a few miles outside of Weimar, the home of the great German poet Goethe. When I walked into St. Thomas, I imagined Bach climbing up to the organ loft. But when the music sounded, what flashed upon my memory were not only my childhood dreams of one day stepping into his church but the camp I had visited twenty-four hours earlier. Tears poured down my face as the organ sounded the prelude, tears of joy at realizing my childhood dream of hearing Bach’s music in the church where he had performed, and tears of sorrow at the horror of what occurred at Buchenwald.
With those blended tears came the realization that I was on a study tour of something much larger than Germany or any other nation, for the history of every nation has its own mixture of sublimity and terror. In the United States we have only to recall what we did to the native inhabitants of this land or the awful slave traffic. The mixed tears of joy and sorrow that day came from a realization that in visiting Buchenwald and then listening to Bach’s music in St. Thomas Church, I was on a study tour of the human soul and its astounding capacity to produce both evil and beauty.
The more I thought about it, the more complex the tour of the human soul became. I recalled how the same religion that inspired Bach to create such exquisite music also fed the antisemitism that helped provoke and sustain the extermination of the Jews. It was not just my tears that were mixed, but rather the very realities that shape the life, beliefs, and practices of human communities. They are never purely good nor purely evil.
In light of the complexity of the human soul, how then are we to live? The first thing that strikes me is that none of us – no individual, no community, no nation – is ever to be arrogant about who we are and what we have done. But in humility we are called to create beauty that redeems life by lifting our hearts and minds to a vision of what we can be by the grace of the one who is the source of every good gift. Listening to Bach and recalling how relatively unappreciated his music was while he was alive, I thought of the courage of his vision, how he kept composing even as his sons judged his musical style to be out of fashion. Though we lack Bach’s genius, we can have his integrity of vision, so that whatever we create or perform awakens in us and in our listeners the highest and holiest desires of the human heart.