Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Think Of It As Prayer

Considering our cozy 4 1/2 square miles, there are a lot of churches in Oak Park, the Chicago suburb where I’ve spent the last 17 years.  No judgment intended, but there is quite a potpourri of paths to salvation right outside most of our doors.  Though I was raised Catholic, I enjoy Unity Temple these days. Always searching for some sort of gateway to my inner self, what my grammar school teachers might have called the Holy Spirit or the soul, I was curious about the latest: The Church of Beethoven.
No doctrine, no preaching, no holy books…the Church of Beethoven is a simple concept.  In an intimate (meaning smallish) setting let an audience (or “congregation” to extend the metaphor) experience the emotional/spiritual intent of a classical composer through a live small group or solo performance.  The musical selections are complimented with poetry readings.  The Church of Beethoven happens once a month on a Sunday at the Open Door Theatre.  It is the intimacy of the setting that makes the performance “more”…being able to see the musician’s hands and face, hear him/her breathe, see when a single note touches a nerve in the heart of the performer.
Ah, the wonder of a live performance.  For those impressed with attending concerts at large venues, Chicago’s Symphony Center for example, consider the small club or theatre, your local coffee house.  Sit close and listen without distraction…shut the cell phone off for 45 minutes.
"Mingus This Way" photo by Max DeGenova
On the same weekend that I attended the Church of Beethoven, I also enjoyed a very special jazz performance at Buzz After Hours (an occasional event at a small coffee house, The Buzz Café).  Sitting at a table not four feet from the quartet, I could hear the saxophone’s keys close; could hear the keyboardist hum his improvised line as he played it; see the eye contact between musicians cueing each other; see the smiles of mutual respect as solos found their climaxes; could hear the drummer take breaths on off beats.
I had invited one of my best friends, Larry Janowski, to join me at Buzz After Hours.  He is a poet and Franciscan friar.  A classical music lover with only a novice’s exposure to jazz performance, this is how Larry responded to the “magic” between the musicians and the music during that night of jazz:

The whole session was like a prayer for me.  What I mean by “a prayer” is not the “talking to God” idea, but I guess what I really mean is contemplation, or what we sometimes call the prayer of union.  It’s the deepest kind of spiritual experience in which there is no longer any separation between the person and God.  In such a moment there are no words.  There are no feelings.  There is only Being.  All is one. I got a glimpse of that kind of experience last night.

To me, this is to experience art.  Deeper, artistic inspiration is divine, however you might define divine.  In this sense, artists are messengers and prophets.  Stand close, listen deeply, watch every move…and if you’re lucky, you’ll be inspired yourself.

Of course, the magic doesn’t happen with every performance, but if you’re not there, you may miss a transcendent moment.  Go to local performances, small gallery openings, poetry readings.  Think of it as praying.


  1. Al, this was great; makes me want to find something like it here in Madison. We have our small art exhibits and I’m always happy to have gone, but I’d like to find something like your Church of Beethoven. Keep up the blogs.

  2. "Smaller" is often the key. I remember sitting on the dock years ago, strumming my guitar and singing "Closer Walk with Thee"; at each closing note, it was not enough, so I went on ... an hour later, I returned to the house feeling like I'd walked through that door. Eternity. “There is nothing in the world so much like prayer, as music” ~ Wm P. Merrill Thanks for this Al. ~ Jude

  3. What a beautiful moment, too, you provided with your "prose", Al. I'm pondering being a "messenger and a prophet" as a writer of poetry- now that is also something that doesn't happen with each sharing of a poem - as poets we may be community organizers, or visionaries in another sense, or just opening our hearts for the sake of being human, experiencing our lives, and hopefully giving expression to something unsaid, or not truly appreciated before. But the messenger and the prophet aspect, that has to be the moment of giving something uplifting, transcendental. I suppose that anything that touches you in some way is that- you are in "union" as Larry might say. How much you let it touch you also might be the audience's prerogative, i.e. all of us. How much can you let life touch you...how much can you be here... Thanks for the provocative and soul searching words, Al!! - Barbara Perry

  4. Well spoken, Al. A wonderful up close and personal venue for jazz is the twice monthly jazz vespers at the Lutheran Church of the Resurrection on Shermer Road in Niles. Many of Chicago's finest jazz musicians play there, two sets, for free. It's a tiny brick church and you are never further than 8 pews away from the music.