Poetic Contentment

Throughout history, musicians have turned to poets for the lyrics of their vocal compositions. Beethoven turned to Schiller for “Ode to Joy.” Mahler turned to Friedrich Glopstock for the text of his Resurrection Symphony: Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n. And in the case of the piece The Artemis Trio will perform shortly, Johann Sebastian Bach turned to poet Christian Friedrich Hunold. Evidently they knew one another for Bach used several of his writings in different settings.

In the piece you are about to hear the message is contentment. “My soul, be content with whatever God ordains.” In his metaphoric poetic verbiage he suggests that one must find “pearls of contentment.” To get to that gem of a phrase Hunold employs the metaphor or simile of an oyster.

Now, poets throughout the centuries have turned to nature to ply their trade. Nature metaphors abound in an attempt to bring insight to the human condition. Indeed, in one of the Handel pieces Suzanne sang earlier there is this line: “The flowering splendor of spring is the speech of Nature who clearly, through sight, speaks with us everywhere.” The “speech of nature” – we often look to nature to help us understand ourselves and our world. Therefore, poets look to maximize it power.

So, here we have Christian Hunold employing the metaphor of an oyster. In the recitative Suzanne will sing:

The oyster opens when the sunbeam strikes it,

and it reveals within itself the fruit of pearls:

In this way seek only to unlock your heart to heaven

then through the divine light you will also receive a jewel

that all the treasures of the earth are unable to attain.

Looking to nature to provide insight into what is really important in life, a jewel above all other treasures.

Except, what do you do if the poet’s appeal to nature is just plain wrong; not true? Does that negate the spiritual message that was intended? This idea that the sunbeam causes the oyster to open intrigued me; yes, even raised some doubts in my mind. If oysters are in the water how does the sun affect them? Inquiring minds want to know. So, I did some research. I contacted the Tomales Bay Oyster Company and asked, does the sun cause oysters to open? The answer? No, oysters are intertidal animals which only “open” to feed when under water and close tightly when the tide goes out. They suggested that the line in the song might be a “romantic version of oysters.”

Right now, you might be saying that I just under-minded the whole message of my sermon. Any “pearls of contentment” will be severely compromised, right? Ah, but we preachers are used to dealing with unruly texts, so let me see if I can resurrect this thing.

The title of this Bach piece is Meine Seele sei vergnügt (My soul, be content). And that’s the message. Simple as that! You are in God’s hands so be content. Don’t look elsewhere in the world. Look within and there you will find “pearls of contentment.”

To a significant degree that’s been the running theme in all the psalms we’ve read today.

“As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.”

“Dear God, you have taught our souls to trust you.”

“My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast.”

“My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast; I will sing and make melody. Awake, my soul!”

In one of the Handel pieces we heard this line, which inspired the theme of today’s Music for the Soul:  “Sweet stillness, gentle source of restful calmness! This will make my soul joyful.”

Contentment might not be a word that characterizes your soul today. Words like anxiousness, worry, apprehension, and even fear might be more to the truth of the condition of your soul as we venture into an new, unknown world.

But God’s desire for us is that we rest in God’s enfolding embrace and, indeed, find contentment there. That will gird us up for that venturing forth into the world.

So, as The Artemis Trio performs Bach’s Meine Seele sei vergnügt don’t worry about a mistaken understanding of oysters and instead, sit back in contentment, if you will, and let God’s embrace enfold you even as Bach’s music brings joy to your soul.

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