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Hope for Transfiguration

February 15, 2018

In the summer of 1998, I found myself in Tallinn, Estonia, on a public service fellowship. I was an intern with the American Chamber of Commerce, Estonia; I read the English news for the Estonian national radio, and I was training for my first triathlon. It was my first time living abroad, away from home, and I loved exploring the picturesque old town of Tallinn. It was so beautiful I could hardly believe it was real. We spent time on the island of Saaremma in the Baltic Sea, and the sentience of the woods there was something I will never forget. 


The art, culture, and community I found in Estonia shaped me profoundly. But the highlight of the summer was an accident. I stumbled into a concert one night, of the Estonian Philharmonic choir in the old Niguliste Kirk. They were singing Arvo Pärt’s Kanon Pokajanon, the Canons of Repentance, which is written in church Slavonic. And before I really knew what was happening to me, I felt the music of the choir engulf me like an ocean wave. I could feel the shape of the architecture, and somehow smell snow in the woods.


What is more: I knew what they were singing about. The translated text told me, but I could feel it anyway: they were singing of repentance. Of the deep, textured human sense of despair at our collective inability to rise above sin and evil. The music speaks, too, of mercy, of the desire for redemption. It is haunting, and it is beautiful. It was so human. I was simultaneously taken out of myself, and brought closer in. Such is the power of music and church to transfigure our deepest distress, as the hymn says, and take our sorrow and turn it into longing. 


As another mass shooting unfolds, I can only add it to the collective evil we have become. I can only cry out with shame and sorrow and despair. Listening again to Pärt’s music has helped me consecrate that impotent rage--and made me realize, again, just how much we need the season of Lent. My individual contributions ot the sin of the world include my very belonging to such a world. How can I do anything but pray that God could forgive me, us?


This year, on Good Friday, we will have the chance to gather for the choir’s rendition of Arvo Pärt's Passio, the complete text of John’s Passion. I hope I can prepare to hear that music, and to be transfigured by its sorrow, and its promise.


See you in church,

The Rev. Rita Powell

Associate Rector


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