In a piece I recommend you read at The Rumpus, Amber Sparks, a non-believer, discusses matters of faith, spirituality, and art. The piece is entitled “Seeking Grace in Strange Places”, and I think that title is fine. I do find it curious, being a recalcitrant agnostic myself, that Sparks would consider writing (especially poetry) a “strange” place to seek grace. For at least two reasons. One, I think writing (in particular, art in general) is not only not a strange place, it’s the ideal place. Second, this sentiment presupposes (and I’m not deliberately picking on Sparks or even trying to quibble over semantics) that, say, a church is not a strange place. Indeed, one could counter, with minimal snark and maximum truth, that there are many things strange about looking for—much less hoping or claiming to find—grace, or God, in a building designated for that purpose. For starters, it’s a sanctioned endeavor, turning the transmission of spiritual release into an act approved by a professional, like taking medication that a doctor prescribed.
My own issues with Faith, Church, God, Religion (etc.) have often been inextricable from my writing, just as they have been inseparable aspects of my life. Why shouldn’t they be? Just because I ceased to wrestle with the metaphysical angst of who we are, what we’re doing here, and where we’re going (amongst other concerns)- and above all, if there was a big conductor in the sky overseeing the proceedings, does not mean I don’t contemplate the implications. For me; for us all.
But let me be clear, I can—and do—appreciate holy places for their aesthetic appeal. I am encouraged—and inspired—by people of genuine faith whose actions speak louder than psalms. I remain in awe of the human works that have been commissioned—or prompted—by the religious imperative. Being in Ireland this spring involved a steady diet of Guinness, sheep, castles, and cathedrals. It was incredible, and not a little humbling, to behold these mammoth structures that took decades, or centuries, to construct, and withstood the time and tempest of our increasingly insane world. The combination of inconceivable expertise (how, exactly, did these people create hundred-foot statues out of stone without, you know, lasers or at least the same friendly aliens who assisted the Mayans and Egyptians?), patience, craft, and, ahem, cheap labor, all combined in the service of something intentionally designed to be bigger than mortality; something intended to span generations bonded by a common belief. Et cetera.
And certainly some of our best composers (and poets, as Sparks ably illustrates in her piece) have been directly moved by the passion and intensity of their faith to create tributes dedicated to a force they can neither prove nor explain.
(Listen: most of us are blissful or oblivious inside our little boxes, incapable of hearing, much less expressing, the joyful noises that reside in those most inaccessible spaces: within each of us. For instance, what John Coltrane achieves on the final section of “A Love Supreme” could cause even the most cynical hater of humanity to feel humbled by the uniquely moving and profoundly positive force of musical expression.)
And, quite possibly, my favorite instance of (literal) biblical text utilized to articulate some very profound and secular concerns, courtesy of The Great One:
As a dedicated non-musician, I use music (and jazz in particular) as a viable source of empowerment. While it remains first and foremost a very real and easily identifiable source of extreme pleasure, it is also a vehicle, something used to get you someplace else. A stimulus that demands a response, inexorably capable of conjuring up words and concepts (and constructions) such as spirit, soul, God, karma—things that are (rightfully) almost unbearably oblique, or pretentious, or all-too-easily invoked, expedient for folks who ardently need a way to articulate the feeling they either can’t quite explain or desperately wish to get in touch with.
Consider Booker Little, who did not die so much as have his life defrauded, at age 23, from euremia - -an especially brutal, and painful, type of kidney failure. Barely legal drinking age, Little had already led sessions that stand alongside the best post-bop recordings of the era. (He neither drank nor took drugs, incidentally.)
He was able to complete two albums in the final year of his life, both of which capture the ethereal nature of life, the ecstasy of creation, and the unique expressions our most gifted artists are capable of conveying. His voice, of course, is his instrument, and his trumpet tells the story of his life: not for nothing was his final work entitled Victory and Sorrow. It’s not possible to listen to this music without hearing the history of illness, injustice, and ultimately the transcendent human ability to, at least temporarily, overcome anything.
At once somber and serene, the compositions achieve an intense distillation of Beauty: the joy of inspiration leavened with the contemplation of transience. It is all in there, as devastating in its way as the symphonies of Mahler or the extended meditations of Tolstoy. Does the concentrated intensity of this sound derive from the soul of a man who sensed his time was, all of a sudden, just about up? It is almost intolerable to imagine that he was anticipating—and realizing—some of the experiences and emotions of the years he should have had, putting every thought, feeling, regret, and ambition into his playing.
The inimitable Rahsaan Roland Kirk (who was born blind and eventually taught himself to play three saxophones—simultaneously) often talked about bright moments: occasions where you feel deeply connected to the music, the message, and the soul of the messenger. To be sure, he made it rather easy: all one need do is listen with the heart as much as the ears and the music takes care of everything else—you’re just along for the ride. And yet, you’re not. You really do go somewhere: begin here and end up there. When you listen to the best jazz music, the experience is never static; you are always on your way someplace.
Here’s the bottom line: when I contemplate whatever life has in store for me, or even if I allow myself to entertain the worst case scenarios regarding what I could have been or might become, as long as my ears work, all will never be lost. In this regard I echo the letter of Paul to the Corinthians, which is obligatory reading at every wedding: “And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” I feel that, and I don’t know many people who would attempt to contradict such an irrefutable sentiment. But I reckon, if everything else was removed from my life—including love —I could find meaning and solace if I still had music. If I’m ever reduced to a bed-bound wreck, so long as I have ears to listen with, I’ll never be beyond redemption; I’ll always be willing to draw one more breath. Take away my ability to write, speak, see the world, smell the air, drink, eat, or emote, this life will still be worth living if I can hear those sounds.
Which is why I make a request to my friends, family, and the medical establishment: even if I’m someday in that coma and every professional would wager a year’s salary that there is no possible way I’m able to hear anything, as long as my heart is still beating please, no matter what else you do, keep the music playing in my presence until I’m cold. Because no matter what you think or whatever you’re praying for, as long as I can hear that music I’m probably in a better place than wherever you imagine or hope I’m heading toward.