From: Music As Prayer
How easily we are tempted to think that our present generation is superior to the generations that have preceded us. We learn about cruel practices of the past and judge them as barbaric while congratulating ourselves on being more civilized. We read about the ignorance of the past and dismiss it as folly while priding ourselves on how knowledgeable we are. We study tools and machines from the past and describe them as primitive while reveling in the sophistication of our technology. We see fashions from the past and assess them as quaint and dated while admiring the newest style as chic and smart. It all adds up to what I call the hubris of the present moment, an arrogance that fails to see that we share with past generations the same mixture of cruelty and kindness, wisdom and foolishness, beauty and terror. Future generations will find distortions and absurdities in our values, practices, and inventions that never occurred to us.
The hubris of the present moment is a spiritual illness because it cuts us off from the wisdom and insights of the past while blinding us to our own inadequacies. We need to be more generous and hospitable to the past in order to gain a deeper appreciation for the humanity of our ancestors, which in turn will put us more in touch with our own humanity – our foibles and failures as well as our gifts.
One of the primary ways that the church works to overcome the hubris of the present moment is by celebrating what the book of Hebrews calls the “cloud of witnesses,” (Hebrews 12:1), the great company of people of faith who have gone before us. Instead of judging the past as inferior, we sing, we harmonize, we make music with the past. All the congregation members, all the choirs and directors, all the organists, and all the instrumentalists who have preceded us through the centuries are our musical partners.
I have personally experienced how singing and praying with the great cloud of witnesses can lift a person or a community out of the hubris of the present moment. Our church was observing All Saints’ Day during its regular Sunday service. We concluded with a procession out to the columbarium, where we stood while the names of people who had died during the last year were read. There were just under four hundred names to be read, including members of the congregation as well as their relatives. My mother’s name was among them. I had always attended church on All Saints’ Day, but on this particular occasion, hearing my mother’s name in the context of so many other names – some known and some unknown to me – gave me a sense of communion between all who grieve and all who have died before us. A sense of interconnectedness filled my heart and lifted me far above the hubris of the present moment, far above the understandable human propensity to think of grief as unique and isolating. Instead, I was surrounded by the whole cloud of witnesses in Heaven and on Earth.
Such experience is not limited to All Saints’ Day. It can happen any Sunday of the year when you play or sing a composition from the past. Through your music-making you give witness to the great cloud of the faithful through the ages, and you thereby lift yourself and others above the hubris of the present moment. As important as it is to our spiritual health to perform excellent new texts and music from living poets and composers, it is equally important to hear from the past, from the gloriously long trajectories of music that keep us from arrogantly reducing our understanding of humanity to the tiny little slice of time that we occupy the Earth. Let the great cloud of witnesses sound in your playing and singing!