Church organs: Blessed or cursed?






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Publication: Canadian Mennonite
Author: Dueck, Jack
Date published: May 31, 2010

Lilacs burst into scent and colour, camouflaging robins at their nest-building. Winter classes have ended and summer terms are slated at Goshen College, Ind. The balmy evening echoes with children laughing at play, a ballet backlit by the setting sun.

David calls. "Want to join us for a dinner in South Bend and a Rod Steiger movie?" he asks.

We agree and schedule a babysitter. Living seems wrapped in the contentment of friendship. The sitter calls at the last minute; she has taken ill and cannot come. Disappointed, David and Viola will go out alone.

At 2 a.m. the telephone rings, hacking at our nighttime quiet.

"Jack, there's been an accident," the voice on the other end moans. "A headon collision with a drunk driver. Viola was instantly killed. David was mangled and is in a coma at the hospital. Will you tell and take care of their four children?"

With no room - or time - for lament, funeral arrangements need to be made, relatives called in Canada, bewildered children embraced, and an eye kept on David, whose coma excludes him from all funeral rituals. The living of the days and nights tapers into the motion of assemblies and burial.

After the funeral, spiritually and physically depleted, I travel to Notre Dame University to confer with my dissertation advisor about how to handle this "interruption" as I try to craft a dissertation on "The comic vision in modern British novels." The advisor, a devout Catholic, gives quiet privacy and counsel: "The issues of studies are secondary. We'll work it all out. Let me walk you across campus to the cathedral, where you can step into another world and sit in silence, surrounded by mystery and grace."

The towering cathedral doors enclose me so the world without is no more; the vast vaulted dome bathes me in its cool reverence, while vibrant stained glass stories quilt the air. My advisor dips his fingers into water and crosses himself as he enters into the baptism and death of Christ, and then genuflects, facing the communion altar where the risen Christ is celebrated. He then leaves me solitary in the poignant silence. Imprisoned in smouldering rage and consuming fatigue, I stumble into a pew.

High above and behind me from the organ loft, the cadences of Bach's "St. John's Passion" blend into the eternal silence. Like an ancient juggler, a priest at the organ has come to pray and give his offering to Jesus. The storied saints depicted in the windows are vivid in shifting, living colours, their blues and greens and reds pulsing to the moving music. I sense another kneeling beside me, his spirit to mine: "Behold if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow . . . but I will not leave your soul in hell . . . ."

Suddenly, as if blown by a mighty wind, the arched dome swells while the stained glass figures quiver to the priest's playing. Every cubic inch of the cathedral fills with the cadenced colour of the resurrection chorus. And with it, one protected spot for lament, my spirit's involuntary prayer: "Now from this death awaken me; that these my living eyes may see; O Jesus Christ! O hear thou me! My prayer attend. Thee will I praise eternally."

As I re-enter the cacophonous world of delivery trucks, lawn mowers, and planes filling the sky above me, memories of the organ and storied colours linger as my thesis advisor and Goshen College extend grace and generosity: "All this can be done in due time." And so my wife and I pack up our three youngsters and meander across country, camping enroute to Alberta and B.C. to visit roots and family, while Bach accompanies my sojourn.

One Sunday a young friend invites us to his church to hear its popular and dynamic preacher. The church is bathed in florescence with a special spotlight on the reverend. We are sung at, talked at and then given his word. In powerful and passionate voice, he is a throbbing conduit of words in flesh.

Concluding with evangelical bluster, he shouts, "We must do away with all the old ways. Jesus and tradition are at odds, and we must not complicate the salvation message with history. We should discard all the hymnbooks and have the Lord give us new songs. And if it were up to me," he pronounces, "I would take all the church organs and throw them into the Fraser River."

From a great distance, I hear the closing prayer: "We ask and do this in Jesus name."

As the aisles pulse with masses exiting to cars and the nearest Sunday brunches, someone exudes, "Isn't it wonderful how clearly he preaches the gospel?"

Author affiliation:

Mennonite storyteller Jack Dueck can be reached by e-mail at eajdueck@gmail. com.

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