We managed to get a couple of the few remaining seats for the Christmas Oratorio, having only this morning decided to go to the concert. I’ve been brought up with Bach and so it doesn’t come as a surprise when my eyes fill with tears and my throat contracts with emotion as the sweet-sombre chords of the first choral arch through City Halls. They sing it in German and we didn’t think of buying the programme notes. I wonder whether Larry, who has been studying German online for a while, will understand any of it. As I find out in the break, he gets “mein Schoenster” and “mein Liebster,” meaning “my most beautiful and loved one.” He also picks up a lot of repetition of the word “Glauben”: faith.
This music has been sung every Christmas for the last 280 years, by hundreds and thousands of choirs all over the world. Those long difficult quaver passages, signifying joy at the birth of Christ have been rehearsed by countless individuals in kitchens, bathrooms and church halls. I first heard them through the walls of my mother’s womb while simultaneously being rhythmically massaged by the required diaphragm action.
But strolling home through the festive brightness of George Square, I am not feeling particularly joyful. Like the concert, the jingling fairground atmosphere evokes wistful childhood memories; of the intense longing for all those colourful sweet things on display, the fascination with the carousels and other amusement rides and the inevitable sickness and dizziness. A new addition here is a life-size Nativity scene with a group of adoring adults and oxen. I think it’s the mix of profanity and spirituality that affects my mood. The soprano in the concert hall was revealing much skin, clad in a glamorous black, sequined dress, as if to provide that extra titillation to hold the digital device-deprived listeners’ attention through all those musical repetitions.
But am I in danger of romanticising the past? After all, the venerable Johann Sebastian himself recycled tunes from secular cantatas for the oratorio, music that originally praised royalty and other famous and well-off people. So what do I really want to say here?
My interest is in values, how we are aware of them and how they affect our well-being. Historically, this has been a religious matter. The church (meant in the widest sense here, including Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and other denominations) was/is there to orchestrate ritual reminders of what matters. It uses music, drama, colour and incense to powerfully affect people’s emotions and to stimulate faith. The church also did/does a whole lot of other things that makes many modern Westerners wary of religion. These days, many people interested in spiritual development (although they may not call it that) turn to mindfulness, because it is “secular.” Apart from the sound of a meditation bell, perhaps timed to ring from a mobile phone, there are no clerical hierarchies or religious implements. This serves a need for authenticity and individual freedom – a need for something cleaner, simpler and free from vested power interests. Nobody will be asked to believe anything that science can’t prove; there is no immaculate conception in mindfulness.
Faith is not just about make-believe or blind belief. Faith is an emotive stirring of the heart in response to values that we recognise as important. It has the power to galvanise us into action. I am interested in how the “secular” mindfulness movement can play a part in shaping our ethics in a way that addresses the urgent problems we face today. Why not start with Christmas? Here is an invitation to mull over a few questions.
- How does Christmas fit in with your religious (including atheist and agnostic) background?
- What important values are strengthened by your mindfulness practice? (such as clarity, contentment, enjoyment of the moment, kindness, letting go, accepting what’s difficult, etc.)
- How could these values be expressed during the Festive Period, particularly with regard to care for the environment and truly connecting communication?
- What rituals of your own making could move your heart and those dear to you in direction of more peace and contentment (We have tied ribbons with celebrations and wishes onto fir branches, for example. People love saying something out aloud in a group with everyone listening)?
- How can the giving of presents become a practice of mindfulness (I am aware, for example, how I can fret about getting a present right, in order to feel good about myself and look good, rather than taking it as an opportunity simply to feel my love for the person and put myself into their shoes. Holding such inner processes in kindly awareness is a gift to myself)?
- Enjoy your Mindful Christmas!