My last blogs have been about my experience singing Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, the “Symphony of a Thousand,” with the LA Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel. But looking back at the blogs, I was struck how inadequate were my descriptions of what it felt like to learn, rehearse and perform this incredible piece with the full forces desired by Gustav Mahler (there were over 1,000 people on stage). I realized that writing about a spiritual experience is not just difficult, but almost impossible.
How do you describe a profound, moving, even life-altering spiritual experience? “It was swell” doesn’t seem, somehow, to fill the bill. Even turning to authors, like Thomas Merton, who was a talented writer, practiced and experienced in introspection, doesn’t always help. He may have accurately described his own experiences, but even in his most moving passages, is he describing yours?
Poetry has been held up as more of a road to the sublime than prose. Repetition and rhyming or alliteration can, done correctly, create a trance state. See, for instance, Robert McDowell. Irish bards in pre-Christian Europe were not just honored but feared for their mastery over the language, which enabled them to write and improvise poetry. Their words could curse, bless and defeat armies. Much of the liturgy of the world’s religions is in poetry, rhymed or free. In Classical Greece the Muses of Poetry and Music were the same: Polyhymnia for sacred poetry/music, Calliope for epic poetry/music, Euterpe for lyric poetry/music, Erato for erotic poetry/music, and Thalia for comedic poetry/music. For the Greeks the two were intertwined.
But what if you’re not a poet, as I’m not (English as she is spoke)? Well then, how about the musical side of the Muses?
Felix Mendelssohn wrote: “These [words] seem to me so ambiguous, so vague, so easily misunderstood in comparison to genuine music, which fills the soul with a thousand things better than words.” And this may be so: think of the last time you heard a piece of music that made you want to fly, or explode, or weep. Could you attach words to it? And yet, you want to tell your friends about it. Can you accurately describe the first flush of a new love? Or of discovering the vocation you were created to follow? What if your experience was religious in nature? The waters really run deep where spiritual revelations are concerned.
But I’m not a composer. I can listen to or perform Beethoven’s Ninth, or Mahler’s Eighth, but are my descriptions adequate. If I walk the tightrope between the banal (“It was swell”) and purple prose (“the profundity of my sensibilities cannot be fathomed…”) I still run the risk of not connecting with you. Or of accurately conveying my experience. I could burst into tears, but that’s hard to do in a blog.
So, what passages or writers have moved you, or described something you felt, or at least accurately and adequately (to you) described their own experiences? Let us know.