At my church this past Sunday, the choir sang a powerful piece composed by Pavel Tschensnokoff, a Russian composer living between 1877 and 1944. The title is “Salvation Is Created” (1912) and the only words are “Salvation is created in the midst of earth.” It’s in a minor key with those unmistakable bass resonances found in so much Russian choral music. Once the words are sung, however, the piece is far from over. It continues for many minutes but the only sound is a series of “alleluiahs,” the Russian form of “alleluia.” As I let those syllables enter my consciousness, I thought again about the power of repetition. There are simply some moments in our lives when sentences or even phrases fail us because what we are feeling is too large to be expressible. Sometimes such moments turn around unspeakable losses, e.g. King Lear’s inability to make sense of his daughter Cordelia’s death so he just keeps saying over and over “Howl, howl, howl, howl.” Other times we may find ourselves amidst such grandeur that no regular words will do, e.g. how I felt as I stood amid all the stone sculptures and carved out rock spaces in Arches National Park in Utah. So I just kept saying hopelessly inadequate things like “wow.”
In faith systems, such moments occur when someone like a composer of sacred music feels so certain of their supreme being’s love that they stop trying to put that into words. Then we get chants by holy women and men or repeated words like “alleluiah” in the piece I just heard. The common factor in such moments may be a realization that no human construct of meaning is sufficient to hold the deepest mysteries or to give sense to the ineffable. We know in all such moments that some things cannot be explained or even understood, but must either be dismissed as some kind of “magic” or we admit just how tiny and limited we are in the face of grace, be it natural or supernatural.
Mr. Tschesnokoff felt that as he wrote about his sense that salvation is not something nebulous or out of this world. Rather, for him and for me, I must say, it is in and of the world we inhabit every day. We miss it sometimes because we’ve been taught that it is beyond us, just as sometimes we miss miracles because we expect some Damascus Road experience that changes everything in an instant. So salvation can be my feeling connected to the three cardinal couples who visit my feeder each dusk, first in gendered groups–the males come first, lighting up my back yard, and then the females in their stunningly nuanced shades of tan and scarlet. Or it can be how I feel when a poem takes over my consciousness, drawing me deeper and deeper into some world I haven’t imagined or been able to inhabit before.
Watching my cardinals or reading poems by people like Tracy K. Smith or Robin Coste Lewis or Emily Dickinson or John Keats, I slip into incantations, leaving any attempts at sentences in the wake of my emotions. “Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow.”