The natural world is a wise teacher in helping us cultivate a more soulful nature within. But how can we hear this still, small voice in our noisy culture? It requires a spiritual practice of listening attentively to nature and being good stewards of the earth. The wild also calls us to risk discomfort — physical and spiritual — in order to reap the deeper qualities of the soul. Are we willing to venture forth?
Rev. Jennifer DeBusk Alviar is an interfaith minister ordained in the Unitarian Universalist tradition. She received her M.Div degree at Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California. Her ministry encompasses public speaking, writing, theology, interfaith dialogue, retreat facilitation, social justice and youth leadership. She is a community bridge-builder in the broadest sense. Rev. Alviar is currently engaged in multiple youth leadership nonprofits focused on ritual, environmental care and creative facilitation. These organizations include: Rite of Passage Journeys, Youth Passageways and Partners for Youth Empowerment. She lives with her husband and daughter in Seattle, Washington.
Navigating the Soul of Human Nature and the Natural World
I am on my way to Mexico for a sunny, relaxing winter vacation. As I board the bus with fellow resort travelers, I notice an influx of instruments around me. I spot a cello, a viola and several violins. As luck would have it, my chosen vacation week at Rancho La Puerta happens to coincide with a lively chamber music festival. Perfect! I’ll enjoy some classical music along with the sunshine. What I do not anticipate, however, is the prominent role that Beethoven would play in reshaping my theology as an interfaith minister. In particular, the unique way in which music helps us become more attuned to our human nature and the natural world.
This musical, nature-based theological connection unfolds through a series of whimsical twists and turns. I join my fellow hikers early Tuesday morning to trek up a mountain for a breakfast concert hike. Along the way, my eyes take in a magnificent sunrise. As I gaze up on the hillside, I am surprised and delighted at the sight of a violinist playing a melodic tune. Then another violinist appears further up the mountain. It turns out that Monique Mead, the artistic director of this chamber music festival, has creatively woven in “random acts of music” as part of her interdisciplinary approach.
After arriving at the top of the mountain and enjoying a delicious breakfast, we are ushered into an intimate setting where the Miro Quartet begins its performance. I have never had the privilege of being so close up to a concert like this before. Especially not one in which we can be perfectly at ease enjoying exquisite music in our hiking boots.
I am immediately drawn to the dynamic interplay between music and musicians. I notice how attentive each musician is to each other. They work seamlessly together in coordinating their timing, rhythm, notes, breath, sound and harmony. I do not have a background in music theory. As a minister, however, I am keenly attentive to this particular theological challenge: identifying the discordant notes of our human lives and exploring ways to create harmony in the midst of struggle.
Following this sensory musical experience, I find myself trying to name what I felt that morning. And then it hits me. I have an “ah ha” moment. The word I am looking for is attunement! Attunement embodies all the elements of harmony and human connection. But I’m struggling to integrate this musical experience within a larger theological context. I decide to hold that thought for later. For now, I am heading over to a Beethoven talk led by violist John Largess from the Miro Quartet in anticipation for this evening’s concert.
John begins by setting the context of Beethoven’s early period. Beethoven is a famous pianist with a big ego. He is edgy, raw, defiant. During the Classical period of the mid 18th/early 19th century and into the Romantic period of the mid-19th/early 20th century, music was intended to be pleasant. Beethoven does not follow suit. Some people find his style off-putting. Other’s find him captivating and cutting-edge. During this early period, Beethoven is accepted by the Viennese aristocracy. Prominent people from the nobility class finance his artistic livelihood. Beethoven has it made.
And right at the height of his glory, Beethoven’s world comes crashing down. This is known as Beethoven’s middle period or “heroic” period. It marks a time of great adversity. His mentor, Haydn dies. Napoleon invades Vienna. Beethoven proposes to his beloved. She denies him. His finances take a dive. His brother dies leading him into a lengthy court battle with his sister-in-law to secure custody of his nephew. In the midst of all this, Beethoven becomes deaf. He withdraws from society and stops composing for several years.
This kind of adversity, in theological terms, is often called the “dark night of the soul.” It is coined by the Spanish mystic, John of the Cross. In Beethoven’s case, he doesn’t experience one or two dark nights of the soul. Instead, he encounters a dark, artistic tangle of the soul. At the brink of despair, Beethoven contemplates suicide. Yet right on the edge between life and death, he chooses life. Why? Here is how he expresses it in a letter to his brothers known as his Heiligenstadt Testament: “…I would have put an end to my life – only art it was that withheld me, ah it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had produced all that I felt called upon me to produce…”
Beethoven’s words captivate me. I want to learn more. So the next day on my morning ritual hike up the mountain, I have the good fortune of hiking with Monique, the chamber music artistic director. I say, “Monique, I have to ask you something about Beethoven’s character. Did Beethoven ever come to peace with his life? Did he find hope in the midst of his struggles? Was he able to reconcile his human pain and suffering with grace and gratitude for his musical gifts?”
Monique pauses and considers my questions. Then she says, “It’s complicated. While Beethoven was always rough and ill-mannered on the outside, he maintained very high ideals and a love of humanity. He was moved by the German poet and philosopher, Friedrich Schiller, who wrote Ode to Joy. This poem stated what his soul believed. Beethoven wanted art to uplift humanity. This is what inspired Beethoven to compose a musical rendition of Ode to Joy for his 9th Symphony. Beethoven’s personal challenges, in fact, enhanced his musical gifts. He learned to rely on his inner ear for artistic instinct and guidance. He shifted from being a great performer to becoming a great composer. In the end, music became the container in which Beethoven experienced moments of grace.”
Moments of grace. Yes. Human nature is complex and Beethoven is no exception. Perhaps this is why it makes sense to take an interdisciplinary approach toward reflecting on the word “attunement” within the context of grace and atonement. When we find ourselves in grace-filled moments with nature, music and beauty — like I experienced on my morning breakfast concert hike — our natural instinct is one of praise. We get outside ourselves. We move beyond our egos. In Monique’s documentary,Beethoven in the Face of Adversity, she speaks of the “…indomitable human spirit that we have within us. That spirit that allowed Beethoven to compose this violin concerto even though he was deaf. That spirit that allows us to rise up and conquer the adversities we face everyday.” This spirit, this grace, this resilience are beautiful aspects of our human nature on a soul level.
However, in order to access this soulful nature, we must also be willing to surrender and let go of our own agendas and assume a posture of humility vs. certitude. This is not easily done. Atonement, therefore, might be conceived as our resistance toward surrendering and facing the darker forces within us. This, too, is part of our human nature. Quaker elder, author and activist, Parker Palmer, wisely expresses it in these words: “Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.” Our inability to bear our own pain leads us to commit a multitude of sins through the act of “othering” those on the margins. This includes racial inequities, gender inequities, religious intolerance, cultural genocide and environmental degradation — to name a few. To atone for our sins places us in a posture of humility. When we acknowledge our human fallibility and seek reconciliation, this can open us to moments of grace.
But how exactly do we enter into this practice of atonement to move us toward attunement? The world’s religions offer diverse spiritual disciplines, prayers, rituals and sacraments to atone for our human shortcomings. Within the context of human nature and the natural world, I am drawn to the work of Bill Plotkin. He is an eco-therapist, depth psychologist and wilderness guide. Plotkin helps us understand the process of soul work by building upon Joseph Campbell’s work on mythology, Carl Jung’s work on dreams, and Eric Erickson’s work on the stages of human development. In his book, Nature and the Human Soul, Plotkin describes the dark night of the soul as an opportunity to transform a “core wound” into a “sacred wound.”
In Beethoven’s case, his deafness represents his core wound. He suffers greatly in losing access to the outer world of sound. Yet when he relies on his inner ear, he composes exquisite works of music. This, in turn, transforms his core wound into a sacred wound. Music is Beethoven’s window into grace. Consider your own life experiences. In a world that is commonly referred to as a “vale of tears,” how might your encounter with a core wound transform itself into a sacred wound? How might your reflection and understanding of suffering invite you into moments of grace? This invitation toward deeper soul-making awaits each of us at every moment.
It is now Friday morning, the last day of my vacation. As part of Monique’s continuation of “random acts of music,” she invites Jon Kimura Parker, also known as Jackie Parker, to play some peaceful piano music at the end of our meditation session. Jackie embodies a light-hearted Ode to Joy spirit in personality and humor. I ask him, “What practices do you find most helpful in keeping musicians attuned to each other and their music?” He laughs and says, “Well, we spend a lot of time tuning our instruments. But I guess you could say that we are all working together on creating a collective sense of at-one-ment with our music.”
I smile. I feel lit from within. This is my own Ode to Joy moment as a minister. This week-long musical and linguistic journey has enriched my understanding and appreciation of the word “attunement” in partnership with the word “at-one-ment.” Monique expresses it best in these words: “Attunement is the ultimate act of awareness and empathy. Imagine yourself as a musician collaborating in concert with other musicians. While you are playing your part, attuned to your own self, breathing, purity of notes, and musical intention, you are also intimately aware of and adjusting to the sounds, impulses, and intentions coming from the musicians around you, giving up your ego to align with a greater whole, becoming one—a single unit of multiple voices: “at-one-ment.”
I pray that we, as a community of faith, may stay attuned to each other and bring forth a greater sense of at-one-ment in service to others. May it be so.
Amen, Shalom, Salaam, Namaste.