The Music Muse claimed me at a young age. When asked if my parents made me practice piano, “no, they had to make me stop!” Not even Academia (B.F.A. California Institute of the Arts) could quench my ’freak fire’.
And like Persephone, catastrophic personal tragedy dragged me kicking and screaming into the Underworld as a teenager. My teen years and twenties were crushed by overwhelming darkness and despair. Friends at a local Evangelical church said “Come join us, we have answers!” Great, I need them! But I didn’t find their answers very helpful, kept pressing, and one day the pastor said in exasperation: “If you would just learn Greek, you could read the New Testament in the original and answer your questions yourself.” I! CAN! DO! THAT!
So at Biola University I squeezed in 2.5 years of Greek in 1.5 years (99% or better on all my exams). Then, because when just reading it’s too easy to glaze over the hard passages, I decided to do my own translation — as a massive devotional exercise. (I had no idea I was unknowingly doing Lectio Divina — an ancient spiritual practice).
That massive translation exercise turned out to be a mystical experience (small-‘m’ mystical). While translating the Gospels, which took over a year or so as I was able to make time in the evenings, I constantly had a sense of a Loving Presence as I was working through the Text. It never felt like “Hey, this is Jesus!” or anyone else — if anything it felt Feminine. And if that Presence had said: “Go to Antarctica and preach to the penguins,” I would have! Instead, it felt more like “Go live life. Keep following your nose. You’ll be OK.”
So eventually I translated the entire New Testament. That exercise probably created more questions than it answered, but at least they were much better questions! Also, some in The Church (various denominations) were sympathetic to my experience, some outright dismissive or hostile, but I never did find substantive guidance. Some things you have to work out for yourself, I suppose. So over the years since I’ve studied world religions, Western philosophy, psychology (Jung and Campbell especially), mythology, history of mysticism, physics, mathematics, and more self-help books than I can count.
Reading about swimming is one thing, but throwing oneself into the ocean is quite another! So, I threw myself into the World in search of my Grail, achieving some small modicum of worldly ‘success’ in the process. My Quest and the vicissitudes of life took me to many realms: entrepreneur, musician, corporate America (including technical writer at IBM and programmer at Microsoft on the C++ team), harpsichord maker, college mathematics instructor, martial arts instructor (Kenpo) — and although each has their beauty (and shadow), none of them was Home. And in my wanderings I was enchanted by the glass armonica — a musical instrument invented by Benjamin Franklin, which I have played professionally including performances at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. and at the Hollywood Bowl with the Blue Man Group. And husband, father and grandfather — including both the agony and joy that accompany those roles.
In short, a whole lot of wandering as an alien and stranger upon the earth, struggling to make sense of all I had experienced. In hindsight I can see the deep truth of “Not all who wander are lost”, and “Be seeking and you will find”.
So now what? Well, how about a blog?
The usual wisdom about ‘blogs’ and ‘internet marketing’ is ‘find your niche — all depends on that’! But how do I make a niche out of all the above? I have really tried, but in the end I just failed. Instead, I’ve decided “to hell with niches.” Just write blogs and music incorporating the complex interplay of all that has possessed me on my Quest, and that’s just how it is. That being said, my interests/concerns have coalesced around some epicenters:
The precipitating event in my teen years to my sojourn to the Underworld was my 13 year old brother Eric committing suicide (I was the oldest brother, 16 at the time). I
Anti-depressants all around was the official prescription, but in the 1970’s those were very crude (from my observation: flatline, almost drooling affect) and I decided to avoid that if I possibly could. I had been a musician since I was 5 years old, by 16 I was a fairly accomplished pianist. So I tried Music as my ‘drug of choice’ to get me through my darkest hours. I tried as many composers/styles as I could lay my hands on, but the composer who consistently stood me in good stead was J.S. Bach (1685-1750). Bach was no stranger to deep suffering himself. Listening was OK, but what really worked was PLAYING. PLAYING his music — sometimes the same piece over and over for hours — until the darkest hours passed.
For most of Western history (starting at least with Plato), Music was regarded as being an important spiritual influence on the listener. Bach subscribed to that view. It was only with the Enlightenment (c. 1750) that the Arts in general and Music in particular were relegated to the role of ‘trifling entertainment’. That is still essentially the role Music holds today. But that was not my personal experience — Bach’s music ‘saved me’ almost like soul-penicillin. Yet time moves on — musical styles and idioms that were natural in Bach’s day are hard to comprehend in our own. So I am thoughtful how in my own small way I can honor the gift Bach gave me across the centuries, by writing music now that can embrace the broken souls among us. (Note: that is not ‘happy happy joy joy’. An essential element is meeting people where they are.)
A Mathe-Poetic Cosmos
In the course of studying the Greek New Testament I also studied the history and culture of that time. As it turns out, the first few centuries of Christianity were rather wild — there was little consensus on how to understand the life and teachings of Jesus, and wildly differing views of what the Christian life looked like (ranging, for example, from free-love orgies to self-castration). All that changed when Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in 313 — seeing it as a useful ally in stabilizing the Roman Empire. In Constantine’s view, for Christianity to perform that stabilizing function it was necessary for all Christians to believe the same way, and thus began the unholy alliance between the Church and State and its long history of suppressing dissent.
Until recently little was known of these alternative views in the first few centuries after Christ, but recent finds like the Nag Hammadi Library have changed all that. This was a period in Christianity with a religious freedom and broad imagination that hasn’t been equaled since. (In spite of occasional persecutions by the Romans.)
Gnosticism of course was a major player here. But there’s another intellectual stream from this era that I find fascinating, the so called Corpus Hermeticum, written in the 2nd and 3rd century and possibly the 1st century (but not Christian — no references to Jesus). The reintroduction of this body of work to Europe in the 15th century played no small role in launching the Renaissance. In their view there is ‘natural magic’ — availing oneself of the natural properties of the Cosmos to one’s advantage, vs. ‘ceremonial magic’ — using ritual to summon spirits to do one’s will. Of course the Church frowned on ‘ceremonial magic’ (the Catholic Mass arguably being the only allowable ‘ceremonial magic’), but ‘natural magic’ was OK, and in it we see the beginnings of Science. The Hermeticists were also interested in alchemy (proto-chemistry and a whole lot more) and how number ruled the workings of the cosmos (including things like gematria). Isaac Newton was a Hermeticist and wrote far more about that subject than he ever did about physics.
That idea that number and proportion ruled the Cosmos also informed Bach’s music: he composed much of his music with carefully crafted proportions (see, for example, Ruth Tatlow: Bach’s Numbers: Compositional Proportion and Significance) and an extensive vocabulary of musical symbolism (see, for example, Albert Schweitzer: J.S.Bach — yes, the Nobel Peace Prize winning Albert Schweitzer!).
And finally we have the glass armonica — the musical instrument invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1761. It was a favorite of Franz Mesmer, and was frequently imputed to have ‘magical powers’ of various sorts.
So we have here quite a web of ideas — a mathe-poetic approach to the Cosmos and spirituality ranging from Pythagoras through Gnosticism and Early Christianity (‘number symbolism’ played an important role for both) to the Hermeticists to Bach. More material than many lifetimes can do justice to. But we shall see what we can discover — with me writing articles and composing music to document our wanderings in this marvelous Journey.