A song we are meant to sing

A sermon given at the Clergy Vow Renewal Service, Holy Tuesday, March 27, 2018, at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Boston, by the Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates, Bishop

The king was out of his mind.

King Philippe V, he was, grandson of Louis XIV of France.  Philippe himself sat on the Spanish throne, ruling that country in the early 1700s.  The nature of his mental illness is hard to say from such a distance.  He would howl long into the night; lie in bed in his own excrement; play endlessly with clocks; go days – sometimes weeks – without talking.  That he was not deposed from his throne was remarkable.  That he was able to hold on was thanks, in large measure, to Farinelli.

Carlo Farinelli was an Italian-born singer in a family of singers.  At the age of ten Carlo’s family agreed to have him castrated so as to preserve his beautiful voice.   The sound of castrati, we are told, was extraordinary – not precisely a countertenor nor a soprano, but with depth and range and power, and a pure, genderless, ethereal sound.  It was, of course, a sound born of barbaric cruelty, something that should never have been heard and should never be heard again.

When he was thirty-two years old, Farinelli was persuaded by King Philippe’s wife Isabella to come to Spain, to sing for the ailing King.  And sing he did.  As depicted in Clare van Kampen’s play, Farinelli and the King, Philippe receives Farinelli initially because he senses a certain bond in circumstance.  “We were both made [who we are] against our will,”[i] the King tells the castrato:  It is no more natural for me to be a king than it is for you to be what you are.  Both have been “robbed of normality.”  Both men, concludes the King, have unreasonable, impossible expectations heaped upon them – by their families, by the public, even by God.

Philippe: “You have a world of subjects – as I do.  Mine were given to me by God,        though.  I wish I were a pagan.”

:  “Why?”

:  “Many gods are fun; one is a nightmare. … He keeps us on a tight rein.”[ii]

If Farinelli is accepted by the king at first for his companionable brokenness, he is kept on for the ethereal beauty of his singing.  His music has its way with the mad monarch.  Gradually, but inexorably, the king is drawn out of his isolation and darkness by the music.  It re-centers him, it re-focuses him, it restores him.  It reconciles him to the world around him – even to the impossibility of his vocation.  That which the King termed the “music of the spheres” evokes truth, love, and beauty.  The king is brought back from his dark place of despondency, loss of purpose, sense of inadequacy, relieved of his anxiety and his isolation.  Farinelli sings him to his senses.

We are gathered on Tuesday in Holy Week for a Renewal of Ordination Vows.  According to a recent article in Sojourners, ours is a vocation marked by emotional burnout, a reduced sense of personal accomplishment, and isolation.  It is “ceaseless service to God and God’s people” in which “the measure of a minister is how well one can bear the burden of an overworked life.”[iii]

It is an unwise and unappealing aspect of our vocation that clergy too often talk as though, like the King or the castrati, we were somehow forced into our station in life.  We weren’t.  We discerned it and we professed a calling to it.  However, the isolation, the overwrought expectations, and a sense of inadequacy and discouragement – these things are familiar to us.  In our wearier moments we might resonate with Philippe’s assertion that “Many gods are fun; one is a nightmare. … He keeps us on a tight rein.”  So perhaps we, too, need to be sung back into wholeness.

And if we need such a thing, how much more does the world around us need it: a world marked by anxiety, isolation, inadequacy – a world, frankly, descending into madness! How else to describe a nation which owes its very existence to immigration yet is determined to turn its back on immigrants? How else to describe a world which seems willing to commit ecological suicide? How else to describe a culture in which the solution to too many guns is thought to be more guns?  It is madness, surely.

So if we are caught in our own vocational miasma, and collectively in a cultural and global madness, then I expect we need Farinelli to sing us back to our senses.  We need to be inspired again.  We need to glimpse a beauty far beyond our mundane, quotidian existence; we need to hear a truth that puts “truthiness” and “alternative facts” to shame; we need to know a love that proves itself by its willingness to lose itself.   Beauty, truth, love – this is the song of Farinelli.  This is the song we need.  And if this is what the world around us needs, then perhaps the best way for us to hear the song of Farinelli, is to sing it ourselves.

Can we imagine our vocation as one of singing?  I think so.  I hope so.  It doesn’t matter what kind of voice you have, because of course that’s not really what I’m talking about.  The beauty of Farinelli’s song smote the mad king, not just because of the quality of his voice, but because that music took him somewhere else.  Its beauty reminded the king that the anxious, lonely isolation which had become his dwelling place was not that for which he was created.  Nor is it for us; nor is it for our world.  That’s the song that needs to be sung, a song of restoration and renewal.

The Gospel which you and I have been given to preach, the sacraments which you and I have been entrusted to mediate, the reconciling love which you and I have been charged to embody – these are the song we are to sing.  They are at once its melody and its lyrics.  And if there is anything which can bring our world back from its dark places of despair and despondency, it is this song.

In today’s Gospel reading the Gentiles famously said, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” [John 12:21]  The world needs to see Jesus.  The world needs to see a beauty that is eternal, a truth that is not cynical, a love that is sacrificial.  In a moment we will renew our vows.  We will promise once again to be diligent in prayer, and study; wholesome in our lives; compassionate in our pastoring; faithful servants to those in need.  May I ask you also to promise to sing?

I hope that as deacons, priests, and bishops of the church, you will sing.  Sing with music, or without.  Sing quietly to yourself, when you need it.  Sing out strong to your people, for their encouragement.  Sing out loud to the world, for its healing.  Sing a song of grief this week – for we know sorrow, and so does our God.  Sing a song of hope next week – for we proclaim resurrection. Sing out a song of beauty, truth, and love to a world that is scared half to death, a world that seems to have lost its mind, a world that needs to see Jesus.

Am I the only one who wakes up at 3:00 in the morning with the anxieties of my life bearing in upon me?  Sleep eludes me.  Solutions escape me.  I cannot seem to focus on any one thing long enough even to offer it up in prayer.  So what I do, finally, is sing.  I sing a song I learned as a teenager, well over forty years ago.  It’s based on a couple of verses of Psalm 104. [34-37]  Fortunately for those I live with, I sing it silently, in my head.  It starts out slowly, almost as though it is as much spoken as sung:

I shall sing unto the Lord as long as I live,
I will sing praise to my God while I have my being;
My meditation of him shall be sweet,
I will be glad, I will be glad in the Lord.

But as it goes on, in my head, it gets louder, swelling and carrying me forward:

Bless thou the Lord, o my soul, praise ye the Lord,
Bless thou the Lord, o my soul, praise ye the Lord!
Bless thou the Lord, o my soul, praise ye the Lord,
Bless thou the Lord, o my soul, praise ye the Lord!

It doesn’t fix everything, of course.  In fact, it doesn’t fix much of anything.  But like Farinelli’s singing, it manages to calm and focus me a bit.

That song being from the 1970s praise music genre is not one that I imagine Farinelli singing much.  But there’s another song he very well might have sung, because the words were written in the 17th century.  Maybe he did.  Maybe we will.  I hope we do.  It’s another song about singing:

My song is love unknown, my Savior’s love to me,
Love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be.
O who am I that for my sake
my Lord should take frail flesh, and die? …

Here might I stay and sing, no story so divine:
Never was love, dear King, never was grief like thine.
This is my friend, in whose sweet praise
I all my days could gladly spend.
                                        ~ Hymn 458 (words: Samuel Crossman, 1624-1683)


[i] Claire van Kampen, Farinelli and the King (London: Oberon Books, 2018), p. 24.

[ii] Ibid., p. 24.

[iii] Layton E. Williams, “How Overworked Clergy Culture Undermines a Healthy Theology of Sacrifice,” published in Sojourners online https://sojo/net/print/222075