I don’t think I’m alone in finding it all the more repetitive as this next lockdown stretches into the future. Days, weeks, even months seem to blur together and distinguishing one from the other becomes increasingly difficult, even with regular and immovable punctuating events. It feels a bit like being on a great big hamster wheel that never stops spinning, but which always returns me to the same place. Wheels within wheels cycle through both the small- and the large-scale. It reminds me of a sketch from the 1970s British comedy duo Morecame and Wise, though the comedy in our current predicament is definitely more ironic, if there at all for many of us!
One of these bigger wheels is returning us seemingly to where this pandemic all started – Lent and its journey of struggle and hope towards the celebration of Easter, a celebration we had all longed for around a year ago when we thought this would all have passed by then. I find myself, once again, preparing and planning music for this long but rich journey, one which countless composers over the centuries have immersed themselves in, producing some of the most expressive sacred music ever written. Of course, like so many others involved in planning liturgy, including many of you, this is a very different process from this time last year. For much of my time these days I feel like I’m running a small-scale recording and broadcasting studio, producing scripts, stage directions, backing tracks, and the like, then reassembling everything at the other end to create a (mostly) smooth and reasonably professional track. One short piece of music no more than a few minutes in length now represents countless hours and hours of behind-the-scenes work by individuals scattered all over the place, imagining what it was like to make music as a whole. It seems as if many of us are living out the mystery that was television and recording when it first catapulted itself into the human imagination little over a century ago. This is a story which I am sure is familiar to many of you in your own contexts – it’s not only church musicians having to wrestle with this after all!
At the moment I’m busily preparing the start of another busy series of choral recordings for the Cathedral Choir to chart this journey through Lent to Easter, starting with Ash Wednesday, rapidly approaching on the horizon. Instead of a magnificent setting of the Miserere which often forms the centrepiece of the Ash Wednesday liturgy (last year we did an electrifying setting by Scottish composer James Macmillan), we are doing a much shorter version, Samuel Sebastian Wesley’s ‘Wash me throughly’.
As part of the preparation for the choir, I put together a recording track, complete with conductor video, score, and all the choral parts so our singers can more confidently join in when making their own individual parts. It’s a long and laborious process that usually takes a few days, with numerous recordings of me from various different angles, on different instruments, and singing different parts. In the course of recording the various choral lines multiple times, I found myself singing over and over again ‘Wash me throughly from my wickedness and forgive me all my sin; For I acknowledge my faults and my sin is ever before me’.
In the midst of all this repetition, I couldn’t help but dwell on this notion of cleanliness, something that has come to define our very existence over the last year. For years our language has stigmatised illness into ‘clean’ versus ‘unclean’, resulting in so many people being cast out simply because they were unwell. Just look at illnesses like leprosy that were so misunderstood in biblical times, or the HIV crisis that still leaves so many ostracised from their communities for similar reasons. Among the many distractions my partner and I have found during this lockdown is ploughing our way through countless series on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and the like. Our latest obsession is the BBC series ‘Call the midwife’ charting the work of a religious community of midwives and nurses ministering to an East London slum in the 1950s and 1960s. I still cannot help but be amazed, maybe appalled would be a better word, at the conditions in which so many lived in ‘advanced’ countries only a few decades ago. So many characters who find themselves alone and afraid simply because they hadn’t the means, or maybe even the knowledge and intelligence, to access what would now be considered rudimentary hygiene and healthcare, or because they thought the only solution was to shut themselves away, out of sight and out of mind.
I would like to be able to say that this pandemic has brought out the best in humanity, uniting us together in our war against a single enemy. In some ways it has, but in many I feel, sadly, it has not. In a world that was so unbelievably connected just 12 months ago, so many are isolated and alone, cut off, not because of our misplaced perception of their cleanliness, but simply because we have all got lost in this repetitive monotony. As the great hamster wheel of COVID life returns us, once more, to the start of our Lenten journey, instead of, or at least alongside, acknowledging our faults, I think many of us would probably benefit from acknowledging that we’re struggling. Rather than focussing on the pain and suffering Jesus endured in the desert, we could focus on the strength that he must have had to survive, and in that strength perhaps we can find the ability to reach out to someone else feeling the same way, and together walk through this wilderness.
This message was written by Dr. Jonathan White, Director of Chapel, for this week’s Wingèd Ox, a weekly news digest distributed to the college community.
The image used to illustrate this post is by Doenertier82, CC BY-SA 3.0.