Hans Memling, Virgin and Child Enthroned (detail) c.1480 - 1489 Oil on oak Staatliche Museum, Berlin, Germany
It's been a year of thinking about Mary for me. This beautiful painting by Hans Memling reminds me of Berlin, where I was fortunate to see it; the swans in the background remind me of Iceland; and the book beside Mary reminds me of how often books appear in paintings and poems about the Annunciation: even though the baby has appeared here, the book is still there, along with a lily (not shown in this detail), another symbol of Mary. Such a literate, refined, white baby and mother! At least most of us no longer harbor those illusions.
I'm finding it difficult to be truly happy this Christmas: there's too much pain in the world and in my own heart for me to forget all of that and just concentrate on my own many blessings, or on the pleasures of the moment. And actually, I'm glad that I can't; I think it's more realistic to try to hold both the darkness and light together as we walk, stumble, write, sing, paint, and talk our way forward.
The other night, before singing, my choir director and I shared a few moments together. He is a consummate musician, well-known in Canada as an organist and composer as well as a choir director, and it's been one of the great privileges of the last decade to be able to sing with him, watch him work in the organ loft, hear his playing, and to be friends. He's only a couple of years older than I am, and has been a staunch and interested supporter of my own artwork and writing. We spoke about the difficulty of the world we're living in, and how important we both feel it is to continue to work in the arts, to dedicate our lives to being creative and to doing the best work we can, at the highest level we can. We acknowledged how, as church musicians, we can never know who will have walked through the door, why they are there, or how the music may be able to touch them - but that we know that it often does. We talked about how difficult a climate it is, not only for liturgical music and classical music, but for all the arts right now, but that this makes it doubly important to persevere and just be strong and steady about what we do, in all our fields. And we spoke about how important it is, in such a climate, for younger people to see and know that there are people who happily and willingly devote their time and best efforts to the arts, in spite of the difficulties, whether or not they ever achieve great "success" in the eyes of the world - because that really is neither the point or the motivation that can sustain a whole life in music, or writing, or the visual arts.
I was grateful for that communion, and also for a moment with one of the young singers, at the very beginning of what I think will be a fine career in music, who told me how much it mattered to her to know people like my husband and me who have spent our lives in this work and are still excited about it, working hard, and pursuing new projects. And I, in my turn, look at a painting like the one at the top of this post, and see a lineage unfold: the dear friends with whom I saw it, my own mentors, and all the artists who came before me and kept working through their own dark periods of history and their own turbulent lives. What, after all, is this season about, but love -- love of one another, love of one's true work, and love of all that is noble, true, and beautiful? That's the light that shines through the centuries, always trying to make us realize we, we are the lamps.