The light had gone out.
At the very most it was smoldering, fighting for oxygen and trying to climb it’s way back up the wick. The bright little ember was clamoring for fuel, but it was in short supply. Occasionally a gentle breeze would come along, filling the simmering light with a bit of air, but inevitably, someone would come along and stomp it out, or spit into their fingers and stifle the tiny flame with a single pinch.
“A bruised reed He will not break, and a smoking flax He will not quench: but He will bring forth judgement in truth.” Isaiah 42:3
I knew that my flame was but an ember on a stub of a candle, and here I was, standing in the presence of those carrying torches. The Artefact Institute is made up of creatives who’s flames have been fanned by the Holy Spirit. I know it must be so, because the light is safe and warm, and when you come in contact with it you are not consumed, but refined. I was blessed to spend 4 days at a conference hosted by them at St. Michael’s Orthodox Church in Louisville this past weekend. I had registered for the conference as a conducting student, hoping to learn more about the technicalities of conducting church music. I didn’t sign up for the intensely therapeautic experience that would come along with that technical training, but it seems it was all a package deal.
My candle was given to me as a young girl, the granddaughter of a pastor and daughter of a church pianist. Music and church have always gone hand in hand, but the music was all feeling in our protestant years. Entering into Orthodoxy at 13 and abandoning the music of my childhood, I flung myself into chant, consumed with doing worship the “right way” and perpetually afraid of going back to the place of emotional manipulation that ruled the praise bands of my youth.
High school music performance turned music into a competition among peers, a ranking of your value based on your skill level. Never mind that there wasn’t really any help in improving your skill, just a push to keep performing, practicing on your own in a walled up practice room, and the lingering feeling of being a tiny whisper in a sea of voices that mechanically combined to produce sound. We were an instrument to be used by the conductor, inferior to their knowledge and ability, and there to make them look good in hopes of not having their programs cut. The passing of stress from the teacher to the students was obvious, and sometimes the students even pushed back, not at all fostering an environment of love of music, but anticipation for the high of performance only. Rehearsals were drudged through, flat and uninspired, and the performances adrenaline filled and sharp, everyone on edge with the pressure of performance.
I was left in a type of no mans land, convinced that worship should be solemn and emotionless, yet feeling so much in the depths of my heart at each service I sang. I didn’t want music in church to become a performance either- in the tradition of my school years.
I had no awareness to these wounds that had hardened the tissue of my heart, callousing me to the desire to refine my craft and share the depths I felt in these pieces of music.
Day One, in the conducting workshop at Artefact, I was given the label “conducting PTSD” and I almost broke down in tears right in the middle of the class room (I later made it out to the car and let the release of the pain have it’s moment). The wounds were laid bare I was bleeding out, all the pain dripping all over me, each moment of kindness opening another wound, my eyes blacking out to the room.
Here were two professional conductors, with years of study and experience-who in any other avenue of education I would not have a chance of access to- patiently guiding my hands through the air. I experimented with an unfamiliar skill over and over, implanting the new skill into the nerves in my muscles and the lines in my brain. Skillful surgeons of the heart, they sewed the wounds back together with the gentlest thread. They were physical therapists, gently moving my body back into alignment to perform its work efficiently. Once the music stopped, and it was time for critique, they became psychologists, encouraging me in the work I was doing, asking how it felt, what I wanted to change, offering their insights and piercing statements.
One conductor gave the remark, “you have a lot of music in you” that hit my heart and sent the toxic shame that dwelt there bubbling up in my throat, getting stuck there and the pressure of it building behind my eyes. None of these instructors had any training in psychology or physical therapy, but I couldn’t help but see the very same methods being used by them naturally, rooted in of the purity of the spirit in their hearts. I can only wonder- if the world had more of these spirits truly dwelling within it, maybe we wouldn’t need so many therapists to come behind and clean the blood off the floor.
They not only taught us in words about crafting culture, they showed us what a culture of love and respect looked like in every aspect of the time we spent together. I can only hope to take flicker of their flames back with me to carry that spirit to those in my parish. If all of us who participated in this once in a lifetime experience can carry these flames outward, we will be carrying out a living culture, and abandoning the dying culture that surrounds us. Thank God for those willing to share the flame.