Bare Ruined Choirs

Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang. (from Sonnet 73 by William Shakespeare.)

The recent membership campaign on PBS clearly targeted the 70-something demographic as it aired multiple concerts consisting of folk singers, quartets, and bands from the 1950s and 1960s. Moving from actual films of those musical people half a century ago, to live productions of songs offered by the remnants of groups like The Four Freshmen, The Lettermen, and The Kingston Trio, the cameras panned over the audience made up of members who were my age or older. Many were clapping and even dancing; others were singing along with songs from their lost youth.

How much and with what fervor those audience members longed for the return of those days when they were young, days that through the cataracted clouds of memory appear as happy and carefree, the music emblemizing a simpler time. For a while, and that’s the key, they could relive their youth despite the present reality of gray hair, wrinkles, and an assortment of canes and breathing apparatus that bordered the aisles as the music poured from the stage.

At the end of each act came a kind of stillness from the audience as if they had witnessed something dying. Performer by performer came and went, adding to the accumulating ruins of the unrecoverable past, ruins that showed on the faces of those who were intent on preserving it.

I know those songs too, and I have a collection of them on CD (already an outmoded medium and destined to go the way of what we used to call ‘records’) but I rarely play them. As much as I like to remember folk singers like Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez (she turned 73 this year), Judy Collins, and many others, much of their music is not timeless, but time-bound, and it serves only to propel us into the a world long gone, a world never to return. The finality of music of a given era that so loudly and stridently wants to proclaim the ethos of its day sets its own limits, and to use it as a vehicle to reclaim the past is futile and even a bit pathetic.

There is a difference between memory and nostalgia. The first guides us (or can and ought to), and the second, if we seek to live in it, is a trap. Lent provides us with a time, not for nostalgia, but for using our past, distant and not, to enlighten the future. We look forward in Lent toward Easter and the renewal of all aspects of our lives. We are called to look up toward the light, and although the soft glow of the past beckons to us from time to time and perhaps merits a brief visit, we cannot dwell there.

My fundamentalist beginnings taught me many gospel songs, not exactly folk songs like those of Joan Baez, but songs that sing in my heart from time to time. One of them that doesn’t appear in the Episcopal Hymnal, written by Philip Paul Bliss, speaks to anyone for whom Lent is a time of cleansing. It is a prayer as many hymns are; it asks for the grace to come into a higher life and a better relationship with God. Here is the first verse.

More holiness give me,

More strivings within,

More patience in suffering,

More sorrow for sin,
More faith in my Savior,

More sense of his care,

More joy in his service,

More purpose in prayer.

To acknowledge the past and revere it is to give it a proper place in our lives, but to try to live in the past is to live in a grave. We are not people of the grave, but inheritors of him who conquered the grave and set us on the path toward the light. Maybe those long romps down memory lane work as fundraisers for PBS, and I hope that they do. But we cannot afford to take them for more than face value. They are ephemeral and unsubstantial as all things of this world are, and our faith and our life is elsewhere.

Robert Heylmun

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