Archive for September, 2014

New Year Hope: Bach’s Cantatas for New Year’s Day

Continuing my listening to Bach’s sacred cantatas, performed by the Monteverdi Choir and The English Baroque Soloist, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner … this morning I listened to the Christmas Season cantatas for New Years Day (disc 2 in this 56-CD set). The cover photo (all of them likenesses of persons around the world, symbolizing the universality of Bach’s music) is of a child in Amdo, Tibet, wearing an appropriately warm-looking hat.

All these cantatas contrast the year’s ending and the new year’s start: we praise God for the protection and blessings of the past, and we trust in God’s care amid life’s uncertainties and the devil’s traps. The first cantata, “Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele” (BWV 143, “Praise the Lord, O my soul”) is (according to Gardiner, in his commentary notes) of questionable authenticity; it may be a much earlier piece of Bach’s own reused at a later date, or a student’s work composed under Bach’s direction. The piece has an aria that considers grace amid life’s troubles:

Thousandfold misfortune, terror,
sadness, fear and sudden death,
enemies littering the land,
cares and even more distress
are what other countries see—
we, instead, a year of grace.

But the believer still must trust in Jesus as “our refuge in the future, that this year may bring us good fortune.” The believer knows to remain watchful everywhere for the Lord’s guidance. The music itself, composed (as Gardiner writes) when horrors of war and death pale in comparison to the 20th century’s, inspire in us a universal longing for blessing and care amid the particular distresses of our times and places.

A more mature work (according to Gardiner) than 143, the next cantata, “Jesu, nun sei gepreiset” (BWV 41, “Jesus, now be praised”) seeks the same favors from Christ: that Christ’s goodness that has kept us safe through the outgoing year may keep us protected in the new year, since “the foe both day and night lies awake to harm us.”

“Herr Gott, dich loben wir” (BWV 16, “Lord God, we give Thee praise”) is (as Gardiner puts it) ebullient and concise compared to the more expansive 41. As the previous cantata had beseeched Christ’s care in both “town and country” (Stadt und Land), this cantata request blessing for both “church and school” (Kirch und Schule), because Satan’s wickedness lies in wait there, too.

“Gott, wie dein Name, so ist auch dein Ruhm” (BWV 171, “According to thy Name, O God, so is Thy praise”) asks the believer to complete the year in praise of God, with the name of Jesus being the new year’s first word and the believer’s final word.

Probably many people wonder, as do I, what a new year will bring. Think of how differently the world looked at the beginning of 2001 than it did at year’s end. 1914 is another year of that sort. Think of years in your own experience when some event changed the character of the whole year and beyond. 1999 and 2012, when my parents died, are personal examples. I also think of a Facebook friend who lost a loved one on January 1; this friend’s year changed dramatically on the very first day.

Bach’s cantatas give us lovely experiences of hope. We are human and recognize the perils and capricious qualities of life, but we place our trust and hope in God to guide us through. For Bach and his lyricists, God is really the sole source for confidence and happiness. In today’s cantatas, Christ’s is the overarching name that begins a calendar year, ends it, begins the next…. and finally closes our lives as we are ushered into everlasting life.

English translations by Richard Stokes


All We Have in Life: Bach’s Cantatas for Sunday After New Year and for Epiphany

Continuing my enjoyment of Bach’s cantatas on the Sunday and special days for which they were written…. It’s a snowy morning in St. Louis, with more snow to come. I’m feeling terrible because of a cold; tomorrow I’ll call our doctor and get some advice. Plows haven’t been on my street yet, so I won’t go to church, which is about two miles away. According to our local news, two people about my age or slightly older died shoveling snow and working their snow blowers. (Prayers for their families.)

This morning I’m listening to Disc 3 of the 56-CD set, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, of all of Bach’s extant sacred cantatas. Today is the Sunday after New Year, and tomorrow is Epiphany, and this CD (featuring a photo of a Kabul man with frost in his hair, eyebrows and eye lashes and beard) features two cantatas for each day. Disc 4 will be cantatas for the Sunday after Epiphany.

The first two, for the Sunday after New Year, are “Schau, lieber Gott, wie meine Feind” (BWV 153, “Behold, dear God, how mine enemies”) and “Ach, Gott, wie manches Herzeleid” (BWV 58, “Ah God, what deep affliction”). “Schau, lieber Gott” begins and continues through several anguished pleas for help. By the second choral piece, “Und ob gleich alle Teufel”, with familiar tune “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,” the piece lyrically turns to hope: “even though all the evils were to oppose you, there would be no question of God retreating.” Like several of the biblical psalms, the first half of the piece is all anguish and pain while the second half affirms God’s faithful care even in very difficult circumstances.

“Ach, God,” a dialogue between the soprano and bass, is a dialogue between a troubled and beleaguered soul and an assuring angel. By the end, the soul (the soprano) declares assurance in an upbeat final aria: “Be consoled, consoled, Oh hearts, to reach Thee in heaven’s paradice… the joy of that day for which Thou hast shed Thy blood outweighs all pain.”

Then the next two cantatas on this disc are those for Epiphany: “Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen” (BWV 65, “All they from Sheba shall come”), and “Liebster Immanuel, Herzog der Frommen” (BWV 123, “Dearest Emmanuel, Lord of the righteous”). As Gardiner indicates in his notes, the first cantata opens with a sense of procession, antiquity, and Near Eastern ambiance to depict the arrival, not of the Queen of Sheba, but of the Magi who brings the Christ child gifts. A theme familiar to this holiday–what gifts can we figuratively bring the Christ?—is answered: “Jesus would have your heart. Officer this, O Christian throng, to Jesus at the New Year!” Christ, in turn, gives to us more precious gifts than the Magi’s: Christ gives us the gift of himself, and with him the “wealth” of promised Heaven.

“Liebster Immanuel” has dance-like rhythms as it, at first, urges Jesus to return quickly, for Jesus is the believer’s delight and most dear gift through life’s “bitter nourishment of tears.” Gardinar comments that the bass aria “Lass, o Welt,” is one of Bach’s most lonely pieces, as the singer declares, “Leae me, O scornful world, to sadness and loneliness! Jesus…shall stay with me for all my days.” Yet, in one of Bach’s many wonderful techniques, lets a solo flute accompany the lonely singer with more assuring music, as if the flute were the singer’s consoling angel.

I’m struck by the sorrowfulness of some of the pieces. I don’t know if people in Bach’s time made “New Year’s resolutions,” but now that the new year has gotten started, people are back into the difficulties and challenges of life.

But the cantatas are psalm-like in their honesty of pain, loneliness, and people’s scorn, contrasted with the promise of God’s unfailing love, power, and eternal promises. Something I want to keep thinking about this coming year, is the theme of several cantatas so far: God in Christ is, really, all we have in life, the only permanent reality, the only sure promise. All other things, both good and bad, are ephemeral. I admit that I don’t really “feel” that promise often enough as I go about my daily life.

English translations by Richard Stokes


Losing the Lord: Bach’s Cantatas for the First Sunday After Epiphany

I’ve spent this past week dealing with an energy-sapping head cold that kept me home and unproductive. School starts tomorrow, though.

This weekend I’m listening Bach’s cantatas for the Sunday after Epiphany, which is CD 4 in the box set of Bach’s sacred cantatas. These three cantatas are: “Mein liebster Jesus ist verloren” (BWV 154, “My dearest Jesus is lost”), “Meinen Jesum lass ich nicht,” (124, “I shall not forsake my Jesus”), and “Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen” (32, “Beloved Jesus, my desire”). The lessons for this Sunday are Romans 12:1-6 and Luke 2:41-52.

All three cantatas surround the Luke passage wherein Jesus was accidentally left behind at the temple, and his family backtracks to find him. In these cantatas, the distressed believer speaks for the family: I am a sinner, I am in distress and grief and pain, and I need to be with Jesus. But Jesus is lost! Thankfully, God does not

As Gardiner writes in the notes, Bach’s skill makes his cantatas more dramatic than operas of his time; for instance, “in the bass recitative (No. 4) Bach forms a chain of seven successive notes of the chromatic scale in the continue line to emphasize the question, ‘Will not my sore-offended breast become a wilderness and den of suffering for the cruellest loss of Jesus?’” In contrast, though, the subsequent soprano-alto duet is “constructed as a gigue with a joyful abandon… that celerates release from all things worldly.”

When I feel “meh” or lost, I tend to go to the psalms, several of which express anxiety when God seems missing. Most of these psalms proceed into thanks and praise as the psalmist recovers a sense of closeness to God. The Luke story is also a wonderful scripture when one feels spiritually lost and distressed.

Have you ever felt spiritually panicked? The Luke story (and Bach’s cantatas) reminds you of a spiritual feeling that you might also sense in the psalms: that feeling of agitated distress and disorientation at losing God, as Jesus’ family panicked when they couldn’t find him.

Jesus was not really lost, of course. God is really never far away at all. But at our own spiritual and emotional levels, we may have little or no sense of God. It might take us some time to feel close to God again. What a good reminder of the happiness that await us when we get to that place.


Weighed by Sorrow: Bach’s Cantatas for the Second Sunday of Epiphany

Continuing my “journey” through J. S. Bach’s sacred cantatas performed by the Monteverdi Choir and The English Baroque Soloist, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner…. On disc 5 of this set, the cantatas for the Second Sunday after Epiphany (today) are “Mein Gott, wie lang, ach lange?” (BWV 156, “My God, how long, ah! how long?”), “Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid” (BWV 3, “Ah, God, what deep affliction”), and “Meine Seufzer, meine Traenen” (BWV 13, “My sighs, my tears”). The Scriptures are Romans 12:6-16 and John 2:1-11. The cover photo (all of them likenesses of persons around the world, symbolizing the universality of Bach’s music) is of a man (wearing a bright red hat) from Lhasa, Tibet.

I listened to the CD before I studied the notes, and I was taken by the overall somber quality of the cantatas after some of the joyful numbers of the previous Christmas and Epiphany pieces. Sure enough, Gardiner comments in the notes that even the sad titles of the cantatas seem out of place for the happy quality of the lessons and Epiphany season. But the texts describe journeys “from mourning to consolation.” Similarly, the Gospel text from the Cana wedding calls attention to the then-unfulfilled ministry of Jesus (“My hour has not yet come”), which connects to the not-yet-fulfilled journey of the believer, who still looks forward to faith’s fulfillment in Heaven.

In the first cantata, for instance, the believer is assured that God does not delight in sending afflictions but that God wants the joys of Heaven to become all the more precious as we struggle through difficulties. In the second cantata, Jesus is most certainly the one who helps us bear our crosses and keeps our hearts in faith through “mortal fright and torment.” The third cantata is particularly filled with references to tears, sorrow, grief, distress, and bitterness, including feelings of abandonment from God. But all the while God promises to “turn bitterness into joyful wine” and to console us with the promises of Heaven.

Gardiner notes the music devices Bach uses, like the six notes in chromatic descent that symbolize grief in BWV 3, which Bach tranforms into chromatic harmonies that represent the movement from grief to hope. In that same cantata, in the soprano-alto aria connects the cross of Christ to the believer’s troubles, resulting in joy. But in the last cantata, in the fifth movement, Bach uses the bass soloist with recorders and violin to depict our present life as bleakly as possible.

“Hope” in the sense of Christian hope is not only anticipation that something will happen but also trust that it will—and trust in the promiser. I hope that we get a nice tax refund this year, but it would be foolish to trust that we will. I’ll just have to get our taxes done and find out. Christian hope, though, is confidence that God’s promises of comfort and blessings are part of our lives now, as well as in the future. Heaven is in the future, but God has given us the divine life and the divine power today.

So we really live in two circumstances, so to speak, one temporary and one permanent. Our temporary circumstances are filled with things like distress, sorrow and uncertainty (as well as joy and accomplishment). But our permanent circumstance is the life with God which is already accomplished by Christ and is real and powerful. Looking to Christ’s complete fulfillment, however, is that which helps us stay grounded in the divine promises while other things in our lives weigh us down–or nearly crush us.

English translations of the texts by Richard Stokes.


“One Foot in the Grave”: Bach’s Third Sunday in Epiphany Cantatas

Continuing my “journey” through Bach’s sacred cantatas… As I began to listen to this 56-CD set that I described in earlier posts, I started with disc 52, which are the cantatas for the First Sunday of Advent, so that I could follow the Christian liturgical year from the first Sunday. Now I’ve listened to discs 52-56 and then 1-5 as I follow the Sundays in order, and this weekend I’m listening to disc 6, the cantatas for the third Sunday in Epiphany (which is tomorrow, January 26). The sleeve photo is of a child at Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Burma.

Next Sunday, February 2, is Epiphany’s fourth Sunday but this year it’s also Candlemas. So I’ll be listening to and thinking about discs 7 and 8. Bach seems to have not written a Groundhog Day cantata….

The third Sunday cantatas are “Alles nur mach Gottes Willen” (BWV 72, “All things according to God’s will), “Herr, wie du willt, so schick’s mit mir” (BWV 73, “Lord, deal with me as Thou wilt”), “Was mein Gott will, das g’scheh allzeit” (BWV 111, “May my God’s will always be done”), “Ich steh mit einem Fuss im Grabe” (BWV 156, “I stand with one foot in the grave”). Musically these are more generally upbeat than last Sunday’s, but the themes are still difficult. Imagine telling your choir that Sunday’s music is called “One foot in the grave.”

In the CD notes, Gardiner explains that the time period of 72 was difficult for Bach, who must have counted on God’s mercy particularly. He and his second wife, Anna Magdalena, lost three children during that 1726-1728, and 28-year-old Anna herself was ill. (Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara, was only 36 when she died unexpectedly in 1720.) In this situation, Bach set to music words like, “[w]hen affliction and suffering frighten you, [your Savior] knows your distress and frees you from affliction… if [one] is filled with faith, my Jesus will do it!”

When Bach wrote 156 in 1729, the title line, “I stand with one foot in the grave” was a reminder of life’s tragic transitory quality. But the text (and the opening oboe music) affirms (as Gardiner writes) “the believer’s desire for God alone, whether in life or in death.” In the cantata, which begins with a pretty sinfonia, the believer beseeches God for rescue, but also affirms that God’s will is best, for only in God can one find solace and salvation. I love the sound of the oboe in works by Mozart, Vaughan Williams, and others, and it’s a perfect instrument to carry this message.

Gardiner notes that in 73, “Bach’s musical setting reinforces the thetorical structure and underlines the message of faith in the sovereingty of God’s will.” The soprano and tenor represent the anxiety of the believer while the chorus and the solo bass provide assurance. Trust in God’s will, and submission thereto, helps us deal with sorrow and distress, for Christ’s grace and the Holy Spirit’s rule “leads us into heaven’s kingdom” and banishes the “pangs of death, the sighs from my heart”

In contrast, 111 is from 1725, when things were happy in the Bach’s lives, although the cantata balances a happpy faith with the awareness of death at the end where the believer seeks to stay brave at life’s evils.

In my philosophy class this past week, we talked about the inevitability of death, and the fact that there are no guarantees how or when we will die, nor any assurance that a certain time or mode of death is more “fair” than others. But it will always seem so to us: it wasn’t fair that this person died when and how s/he did. No amount of coldly objective thinking about the reality of death unpredictability will convince us otherwise. (That being said, I think my father died in a good way, collapsing with an aneurysm while doing things that he loved around the house.)

Yet tombstones once carried “memento mori” epitaphs, admonishing the passer-by to be reminded of death’s inevitability and to prepare as best as one ever can. In our family cemetery in Illinois, the tombstone of a local blacksmith who died in 1855 warns, “Remember friends, as you pass by/as you are now, so once was I/as I am now, so you must be/prepare for death and follow me.”

As I think about Bach’s cantatas, I’m struck by how the texts and music struggle with those feelings of dread, distress, and grief that are part of mortal life—and how these themes are prominent here in January, still the first part of the new year, during the season of Epiphany that by its very name is about a new and hope-filled appearance of God among us.

And that consolation and promise amid the dread and reality of mortality is of course one of the most precious aspects of the Gospel message. Sometimes we preachers are careful to say (following John’s gospel and other New Testament passages) that God’s eternal life begins now and not just at death. We don’t want people to become too “pie in the sky” in their faith. On the other hand, when a person is facing death (or when a person simply wants to accept death’s inevitability prior to it becoming an issue), the power and grace of Christ becomes even more clearly the foundation of everything, and the only thing one can count on. All of these cantatas “preach” that very message.

English translations by Richard Stokes.


Calming Storms: Bach’s Fourth Sunday of Epiphany Cantatas

Over this weekend I’ll be listening to two discs in the set of Bach’s sacred cantatas. The theme of Disc 7 is Bach’s cantatas for the fourth Sunday of Epiphany (Feb. 2 this year): “Ach wie fluechtig, ach wie nichtig” (BWV 26), “Ah how fleeting, ah how trifling”), “Jesus schlaeft, was soll ich hoffen?” (BWV 81, “Jesus sleeps, what hope is there for me?”), “Waer Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit” (BWV 14, “If it had not been the Lord who was on our side”), Jesu, meine Freud” (BWV 227, “Jesus, my joy”). Actually the first two are Bach’s only cantatas written specifically for this Sunday, while the others two fill out the disc well with common themes. The photo—all the cover photos depict people around the world, symbolizing the universality of Bach’s music—is of a young person of Omo Valley, Ethiopia.

As the title indicates, 26 concerns the shortness of life and all its hopes. As I wrote last week, Bach had tragedy in his life: the death of his first wife and several children. I’ve read elsewhere that his parents died when he was young. For this theme of life’s shortness, Gardiner indicates that Bach’s writing “create a mood of phantasmal vapour” and also of a mountain river (symbolizing life and its hopes) rushing away. The words express sorrow at all the supposed pleasures, accomplishments and splendor of life. “All things, all things that we see shall fall at last and period. Who fears God shall live forever.”

BWV 81 is concern with another “aquatic” image, that of Jesus calming the storm. Gardiner notes that Bach uses recorders with the strings to depict the fear of God’s abandonment (in the image of Christ sleeping while the disciples are fearful). Gardiner comments that the dramatic quality of this cantata (with the long silence of Jesus, the disciples’ fear, the storm itself) gives a sense of what a Bach opera might have been like. “Though lightning cracks and flashes, though sin and Hell strike terror, Jesus will protect me.”

Bach does not repeat the water imagery for BWV 14, but the text does grapple with life’s (and Satan’s) threats to the community of believers, and the assurance of God’s protection and care. BWV 227, an eleven-movement motet included with this Sunday’s cantatas, includes those images—“Beneath Thy shield I am protected from the raging storms of all my enemies”—while more geneally affirming the sweetness and protection of God amid life’s storrow, pleasures, and honors.

How well do we look to Christ amid the metaphorical and actual storms of life? Over the years I’ve tried to sustain my faith (persistently if not consistently) through good times so that I’m less distressed when trouble comes. (As an aside, I’m a terrible worrier, but trouble that has come usually was not what I worried about but something unexpected.)

Fortunately, Christ does not wait until he is suitably impressed with the quality of our faith before he steps up to help us. The disciples were fearful and fussy amid the storm (as I would have been), and although Christ sighed at their fearfulness, he calmed both the storm and their anxieties. For some of us, that is two great miracles in one!


“It Is Enough”: Bach’s Candlemas Cantatas

No Bach cantatas for Groundhog Day…. but these cantatas (and the ones in yesterday’s post) are for February 2 commemorations.

This year, the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany also falls on Candlemas (which in turns falls this year on a Sunday). Candlemas is also called the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, or the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, or the Meeting of the Lord. It is the fortieth day following Christmas, a good halfway point between Christmas and the spring equinox. In the Gospel lesson for the day, Luke 2:22-40, Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the Temple forty days after his birth, to complete Mary’s purification and to perform pidyon haben, “the redemption of the first born” (Exodus 13:12-15, Leviticus 12). Because Simeon calls Jesus a light to the Gentiles (Luke 2:32), the festival became known as “candle mass.”

The next Bach cantatas will be for the Third Sunday Before Lent (Septuagesima), which is February 16 this year.

Bach’s cantatas for the Feast of the Purification of Mary (disc 8 in this set) are “Erfreute Zeit im neuen Bunde” (BWV 83, “Joyous time of the new order”), “Ich habe genung” (BWV 82, “It is enough”), “Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin” (BWV 125, “In peace and joy I now depart”), and “Bekennen will ich seinen Namen” (BWV 200, “I shall acknowldge His name”), although only one movement of this cantata survives. The cover photo is a boy from Afghanistan.

Gardiner notes that “Erfreute Zeit” “contasts the old order of the law and the new order in Christ,” with Bach using the solo violin to emphasize the joy of the wors erfreute” and “freudig” (“joyous” and “joyful”). The second movement, symbolizing the “old order” uses “archaic musical forms… for the Nunc dimitiis,” while the upbeat tenor and a return of the solo violin regains the sense of joy of Christ.

BWV 125 returns us to the Nunc dimittis theme: the servant of God who is ready to leave this life because the waited-for salvation has come. By the second aria, Christ’s light reenters the formerly somber music and the believer looks forward to the prospect of being with Christ, “O unexhausted store of kindness, that has been revealed to us mortals.” The surviving movement of BWV 200 (such a pretty and assuring 4-minute piece, I wish there were more) also uses the theme of Luke 2:29. “I shall acknowledge His name, he is the Lord, He is the Christ… No death robs me of my trust: the Lord is the Light of my life.”

“Ich habe genug” is a well-known cantata, which I’ve also heard with Hans Hotter and with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as the bass soloists. It is an emotional cantata but “Bach’s interpretation (writes Gardiner) contains no trace of spiritual sentimentalism, or glib triumphalism… Might the lullaby of the third movement represent a father watching helplessly as his daughter falls into death’s sleep, and the joyful dance of the final movement anticipate the healing romp of familial reunion in eternity?” The cantata premiered six months after the death one of the Bach’s children. “It is enough… that Jesus should be mine and I His. In faith I cling to Him, and like Simeon, I already see the joy of that life beyond.”

This is a day for honoring Mary. I found a website (http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/liturgicalyear/calendar/day.cfm?date=2013-02-02) that quotes Pope John Paul II: “Simeon’s words seem like a second Annunciation to Mary, for they tell her of the actual historical situation in which the Son is to accomplish his mission, namely, in misunderstanding and sorrow.” The site author goes on to say: “The archangel’s announcement was a fount of incredible joy because it pertained to Jesus’ messianic royalty and the supernatural character of His virginal conception. The announcement of the elderly in the temple instead spoke of the Lord’s work of redemption that He would complete associating Himself through suffering to His Mother.” So in concluding the stories of Jesus‘ infancy on this fortieth day after Christmas, we approach the end of the overall Epiphany period and come within sight of Lent and its emphasize upon suffering, renunciation, and repentance.

These cantatas also lead me to think about Simeon and Anna. Yesterday (January 31st) was the birthday of Thomas Merton, a man who has inspired so many of us with his dedication to prayer, reflection, and contemplation. Although not much is related about Simeon and Anna in the Gospel, their dedication to vocations of prayer are scriptural inspirations for us. Analogous to the appeal of a Walden Pond-like retreat, what is it about a life completely devoted to prayer that holds appeal to many of us—including those of us who really enjoy our present lives?

My own struggle is how to maintain a faithful prayer life amid the busyness of life. These Candlemas cantatas remind me yet again to step up my efforts. But what if, in the midst of faithful prayer, God calls us to a deeper kind of prayer life, wherein we might have to give up some of the hard work, hopes for professional recognizing, and even hectic ministry work that we enjoy?

But maybe that’s making things too complicated when God’s grace is really more simple. After all, Bach set these words: “It is enough… that Jesus should be mine and I His. In faith I cling to Him, and like Simeon, I already see the joy of that life beyond.”

English translations by Richard Stokes

Read Full Post »

At my “Journey’s Home” blog, I’ve been doing weekly, reflective essays on Bach’s sacred cantatas (as explained in the one below for the first Sunday of Advent). These essays will end in late November, when I will have traversed the Christian calendar with Bach. In the meantime, since this blog has its own small following, I think I’ll copy those essays here, a few at a time, so they’ll be available at both sites.

My Bach Devotional Pilgrimage: First Sunday of Advent 

Many people have heard of the “Bach Cantata Pilgrimage.” The year 2000 was the 250th anniversary of J.S. Bach’s death. To commemorate the occasion, John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir, and the English Baroque Soloists performed all of Bach’s extant sacred cantatas in over sixty churches. To perform the cantatas each week in different locations was of course a complicated and relentless task, but the pieces were also recorded. Deutsche Grammophon was willing to release only a few of the cantatas so Gardiner established his own label, Soli Deo Gloria, to release the rest. Those words, “to the glory of God alone,” were Bach’s dedication of each cantata.

The cantatas have been released in sets over these years and feature photographs by photojournalist Steve McCurry of people from around the world. (His famous picture is that of Sharbat Gula, “the Afghan girl,” although that particular photo is not used on these sets.) The photos give a sense of the universality of the music of Bach and its themes.

When all of the cantatas were released this fall as a 56-CD box set, I purchased it from arkivmusic.com. Then I decided to do my own pilgrimage (less complicated than Gardiner’s!) and listen to the cantatas on the Sundays represented by each. I like to find ways to provide structure and variety to my weekly devotional life, since I’m so prone to become busy and harried and to forget. I’ll try to write about the cantatas throughout the upcoming liturgical year, on the Sundays they represent.

I’m starting with Disc 52, which is the First Sunday in Advent—today! (The next CD, disc 53, is the Fourth Sunday in Advent, so I’ve some time until the next installment) The photo is of a Tibetan woman. These are two cantatas both named “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland” (“Come now, Savior of the Gentiles”), which are BWV* 61 and 62, and also “Schwingt freudig each empor” (“Soar joyfully aloft to the sublime stars”), which is BVW 36. The notes indicate that all three used a famous Advent chorale, “Nun komm, der Heiden Heildand,” Martin Luther’s use of an Ambrosian Advent hymn ‘Veni redemptor gentium.”

Gardiner’s notes indicate that these chorals would have been welcome for Bach’s Leipzig and Weimar churches after “all those self-absorbed feelings of guilt, fear, damnation and hellfire that dominated the final Sundays of the Trinity season.” Not only was Luther’s hymn popular but Bach’s festive music would have given worshipers a happy sense of “having at last turned a corner.”

Interestingly, in the BWV 61 cantata, Bach switches themes a little after the aria “Komm, Jesu” (with its repeated prayer “Komm”), from the praise of Christ’s appearance to the presence of the Lord in the believer’s heart.

Open up, my whole heart,
Jesus comes and enters in.
Though I be but dust and earth,
He shall not despise me,
but takes delight
to see that I become His dwelling.
Oh, how blessed shall I be!

In BWV 62, Christ becomes a “mighty hero” with the tone of the messianic psalms (and Isaiah’s messianic poems) characterizing the texts (by Luther and an anonymous writer), with joy and praise concluding the cantata. In BWV 36, Bach sets the words “Even with subdued, weak voices God’s majesty is revered” with a soft soprano and a muted violin. We also have the theme in this cantata of Christ as the bridegroom of the soul—and, of course, the joy analogous to a wedding.

Pray the strings in Cythera
and let sweet Musica
sound out with naught but joy,
that I may with little Jesus,
this exquisite groom of mine,
pilgrimage in constant love.


According to the CD notes, the English translations are by Richard Stokes

*If you’re new to Bach: “BWV” means “Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis” (“Bach works catalogue”). It’s the standard numbering and identification of Bach’s works, according to themes and genres rather than chronology.


Sin and Hypocrisy: Bach’s Fourth Advent Sunday Cantatas

Many people have heard of the “Bach Cantata Pilgrimage.” The year 2000 was the 250th anniversary of J.S. Bach’s death. To commemorate the occasion, John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir, and the English Baroque Soloists performed all of Bach’s extant sacred cantatas (186 in all) in over sixty churches—in one year. To perform the cantatas each week in different locations was of course a complicated and relentless task, but the pieces were also recorded. Deutsche Grammophon was willing to release only a few of the cantatas so Gardiner established his own label, Soli Deo Gloria, to release the rest. Those words, “to the glory of God alone,” were Bach’s dedication of each cantata.

The cantatas have been released in sets over these years and feature photographs by photojournalist Steve McCurry of people from around the world. (His famous picture is that of Sharbat Gula, “the Afghan girl,” although that particular photo is not used on these sets.) The photos give a sense of the universality of the music of Bach and its themes. When all of the cantatas were released this fall as a 56-CD box set, I purchased it from arkivmusic.com.

I like to find ways to provide structure and variety to my weekly devotional life, since I’m so prone to become busy and harried and to forget. So I decided to do my own pilgrimage (less complicated than Gardiner’s!) and listen to the cantatas on the days represented by each. I’ll try to write about the cantatas throughout the upcoming liturgical year.

On December 1st, I began with Disc 52, cantatas for the First Sunday in Advent. Now I’m continuing with Disc 53 for the Fourth Sunday in Advent. The picture on the disc is a man from Rajasthan, India.

The first cantata is “Wachet! betet! betet! Wachet!” (BWV 70). It captures the Advent theme of expectation for the Second Coming: “Watch! Pray! Pray! Watch! Be prepared at all times till the Lord of Glory brings this world to an end…. When will the day come, when we leave the Egypt of this world? Ah, let us soon flee Sodom before the fire overwhelms us! Awaken, souls, from your complacency and believe; this is the final hour.” In the notes, Gardiner points out that Bach alternates orchestra and choir to conjure “the terrifying moment … when ‘the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat’.”

Advent reminds us of the future final hour of Christ’s coming—though we must also be mindful of our own deaths as well. But those who pray and watch have consolation: “Lift up your heads and be comforted, you righteous ones, so that your souls might flourish! You shall blossom in Eden and serve God eternally.”

“Beretet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn!” (BWV 132) is next. “Prepare the ways and level the paths of faith and life for the Highest; the Messiah draws nigh!” The person of faith has great promises: “Through the springs of blood and water your clothes have been cleansed, that had been stained by sin. Christ gave you new clothes, dressed you in crimson and white silk, such is a Christian’s finery.” According to Gardiner, Bach assigns an aria to the bass soloist as well as bass instruments “to express all that the text implies: the vigorous declamatory denunciation of sin and hypocrisy.” Advent is a time for us to reflect upon changes we can make in our lives.

Sin and hypocrisy are themes in all three cantatas. The third, “Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben” (147), begins, “Heart and mouth and deed and life must give witness of Christ without fear and hypocrisy, that He is both God and Savior.” Jesus is our joy and comfort, strength and treasure, and so the believer should not let Jesus out of heart or sight. The familiar tune, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” is used in the song “Wohl mir, dass ich Jesum habe.” The faithful person holds to Jesus amid distress and grief, though his/her heart might break, for Jesus is faithful and loving and provides rest and help.

As we consider our own sin and hypocrisy—as well as our griefs and troubles—how great to hold onto God’s promises for us. Though the scriptural words of judgment are frightening, those who trust in the Lord find tenderness and faithfulness.

(The English translations in the CD notes are by Richard Stokes.)


Hump Day Christmas: Bach’s Cantatas for Christmas Day

Continuing my “journey” through Bach’s sacred cantatas, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner…. today I’m listening to CD 1 in the 56-CD set, the cantatas for Christmas Day. The cover photograph is of a child in Hardiwar, India.

The first CD is “Christen, ätzet diesen Tag” (BWV 63), “Christians, etch this day in metal and marble.” Gardiner’s notes that this was first concert of the year-long pilgrimage (see my December 1st post). This concert happened in Weimar, a city of notable cultural history. But eight kilometers away, lies the notorious place Buchenwald. For Gardiner, this contrast reminds us, among other things, that “Bach’s music is overwhelming testimony to the strength and resilience of the human spirit,” with its need to find meaning and its endurance through life’s horrors.

It makes me think, too, of the sometimes jarring contrast each Christmas when we sing “peace on earth” in a world that has never known lasting peace. And yet the day is etched permanently in human experience. One thinks of the famous, unofficial “Christmas truces” that happened along the Western Front in 1914, mocking the supposed need for nations to go to war.

This BWV 63 cantata has a symetrical form and contrasting moods, for instance Bach’s transition from E minor to A major when moving to Jesus’ birth. Among the several numbers, the singers declare, “O blessed day! O wondrous day on which the Saviour of the world, the Shiloh promised by God in paradise to the human race.” “Call and implore heaven, come, ye Christians, come to the dance, you should rejoice at God’s deeds today!”

The other cantata is “Gloria in excelsis Deo” (BWV 191), the words and song of the angels which, in Bach’s hands becomes (as Gardiner puts it) “a celebration of dance as well as song.”

Are we dancing with joy at the Good News of Christ? On Christmas Day the three of us will open presents, have lunch, and see part 2 of “The Hobbit,” plus I’ll go to our church’s half-hour morning worship. It’s a happy day, for sure. I don’t want to become chiding about our Christian experience—-as if we all “should” be dancing with joy at the Savior, and if we’re not we’re substandard Christians. But sometimes we do feel so positive about the Good News that, even if we don’t dance, we can’t sit still. If we think deeply about the Gospel promises, we can feel an even greater excitement than “hump day”!


Cling to Christ: Bach Cantatas for the Early Christmas Season

Continuing my listening to Bach’s sacred cantatas, performed by the Monteverdi Choir and The English Baroque Soloist, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner … Over the next several days I’ll be listening three CDs for the Christmas season. They were recorded in 2000 at St. Bartholomew’s Church, a favorite stop whenever we visit Manhattan. Although I’m beginning my year-long “journey” with the First Sunday of Advent, these three CDs are actually the last ones in the original pilgrimage.

CD 54 contain the cantatas “Gelobet seist du, Jesus Christ” (BWV 91, “All Praise to you, Jesus Christ”) and “Unser Mund sei voll Lachens” (110, “Let our mouth be full of laughter”) for Christmas Day, and then “Christum wir sollen loben schon” (121, “To Christ we should sing praises”) and “Dazu ist erschienen der Sohn Gottes” (40, “For this purpose the Son of God”) for Boxing Day, the second day of Christmas. On the CD’s cover is photograph of a child in Amdo, Tibet. According to the notes, “Gelobet, seist du” is full of expectation and danceable-rhythms, with its emphasis on praise of God’s work in Christ—the small way in which the creator of the universe appeared for our benefit.

“Christum wir sollen” is based on a 5th century Latin hymn is similar in its content: “God, who was so boundless, took on servile form and poverty.” “Dazu its erschienen” has several contrasts of darkness and light—and the admonition that we should not be anxious and fearful for the “ancient serpent,” for Christ has conquered Satan. “Unser Mund sei voll Lachens” is, for Gardiner, the “most festive and prilliant” of these four with an “irresistible swagger” “Let your mouth be full of laughter and our tongue of singing. For the Lord has done great things for us.”

CD 55 contain the cantatas for the third day of Christmas, also recorded at St. Barth’s: “Sehet, welch eine Liebe hat uns der Vater erzeiget” (BWV 64, “Behold, what manner of love”), “Süsser Trost, mein Jesus kömmt” (151, “Sweet comfort, my Jesus comes”), “Selig ist der Mann” (57, “Blessed is the man”), and a cantata for the second day of Christmas, “Ich freue mich in dir” (133, “I rejoice in thee”). The cover is photo of a baby in Zigaze Tibet.

Gardiner calls attention to the trombone choir in “Sehet, welch eine Liebe”, which I look forward to hearing. He notes that this cantata connects thematically to the theme of Christus victor in the previous day’s cantata “Dazu ist erschienen der Sohn Gottes”, as well as the Christmas cantata “Sehet, welch eine Liebe.” Gardiner writes that Bach uses the trombone to depict the “vertical and horizontal” dimensions of faith: Christ’s descent to the world to save us and our eventual ascent to heaven to gain the full divine promises.

“Süsser Trost, mein Jesus kömmt” is an “intimate and beguiling” cantata has, among other things the use of oboes and violins “in praise of the spiritual riches to be found in Jesus’ spiritual poverty.”

His wretched state reveals to me
naught but salvation and well-being,
yea, His wondrous hand
will weave me naught but garlands of blessing.

In “Selig ist der Mann,” we find a kind of dialogue between Christ and the soul, and thus a connection of Christ’s love with the soul of the suffering believer. In the arias and recitatives, Jesus promises his heart to the believer—and his hand to strike the believer’s enemies and accusers. Meanwhile, the believer declares that he/she has nothing to count on but Jesus.

Finally, “Ich freue mich in dir” is an exhilarating cantata which connects to the believer’s need for Christ seen in “Selig ist der Mann” and the other cantatas.

…. I shall,
O Jesus, cling to Thee,
even if the world
were to shatter in a thousand pieces.

The last CD of pre-New Year Christmas music is the actual last CD of the entire set, also recorded at St. Bartholomew’s. The cover photo is a child from Sarif, Afghanistan.These cantatas are for the Sunday after Christmas: the motet “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied” (225, “Sing unto the Lord a new song”), “Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn” (152, “Tread the path of faith”), “Das neugeborne Kindelein (122, “The newborn infant child”), “Gottlob! nun geht das Jahr zu Ende” (28, “Praise God! The year now draws to a close”), and “
Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied” (190, “Sing unto the Lord a new song”).

Gardiner notes that the BWV 225 “Singet dem Herrn” “distances itself from the mode of the incarnation and anticipates Christ’s coming Passion, crucifixion and death” with a small ensemble, a soprano and basis and six instruments). He also notes that the motet invites believers to the path of faith, as does” Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn,” which is “as close as [Bach] ever got to the traditional Christmas carol-like image of the infant Jesus.” “Gottlob!” takes us into the area of the end of the year’s journey, while the BWV 190 “Singet dem Herrn” reminds us continually of Jesus (in this case, the lesson is his circumcision and naming). Gardiner notes that the cantata begins and ends in D major, creating a little circle with the journey of the past year and the new one to begin.

All good interrelated themes to ponder in our hearts: the weakness and poverty of the circumstances of Jesus’ birth, contrasted with the strength of Christ’s grace on which the believer relies. That strength, in turn, is that which we must turn to again and again through the journeys of our years—and the upcoming journey of the new year.

English translations by Richard Stokes

Read Full Post »

I’ve written a few times on my blogs about going barefoot. Here are a couple lighthearted pieces from “Journeys Home.”

I like having at least a few times during the summer when I can go barefoot. Our previous neighborhood was a wonderful place to stroll shoeless. The relatively new sidewalks were smooth and warm. One neighbor often went barefoot when she walked her dog; she had on her work clothes but kicked off her shoes before taking her buddy out on his leash.

SoDriving2metimes, during road trips, I like to tiptoe shoeless into a crafts store or gift shop in a small town, or an antique store. I love these kinds of places, in little towns off the interstate, so much so that the scent of decorative candles and potpourri remind me of nice-weather drives. I stroll around the displays, and the hard wood floor or the durable carpet feels so nice if I’ve left my sandals kicked off in the car. It’s a silly thing to do but that’s the point: it’s humorous, a little bit self-mocking, and to me quite joyful.

Surprisingly perhaps, I nearly always get very warm service, and I always purchase something at such stores. During one road trip break, I stopped by a gift shop. and the cheerful clerk engaged me with stories of bouncing back from major surgery and meanwhile trying to run a business. The floor felt smooth and cool as I padded around the displays and chatted.

Taking another driving break, I stopped by a bookstore. A clerk greeted me warmly as I looked through a book and asked if I needed help. I said I hoped it was okay that I was barefooted and was told, “You’re fine!” I browsed for a while and ended up purchasing nearly $100 of books. The store’s carpet felt wonderful.

I recall tiptoeing into a corner pharmacy for some items, and I realized that the store was being renovated. Shelves were moved and some items were out of place. A person asked if I needed help, and I thought I might be “busted.” Instead, the person helped me find the items I needed—and amid the remodeling, he couldn’t find them either! My feet made that gentle sound upon the floor as we went up and down aisles and finally located my products.

Going barefoot was a kind of a post-hippy fad during the 70s and part of the 80s, when I was in my teens and twenties. Padding into a store without shoes on wasn’t an uncommon thing to do back then. Proceeding into the grocery store, for instance, was a nice respite on a hot day; you could run your errand and feel the cool floors beneath your feet. Strolling barefoot around our small town shops was a fun thing on a Saturday or a warm late afternoon following school.

Even in the 90s and 00s, I occasionally noticed someone going barefoot out-and-about. Perhaps, like me, they like to keep the fad going, on at least a few summerime occasions. A family inside our local Baskin-Robbins included a shoeless young woman who ate a sundae and rocked a stroller with her toes to soothe a fussy baby. I grimmaced a little when I saw another woman going barefoot in a baseball stadium. The floors were gritty and littered. But she had on her baseball cap and bright team shirt with her jeans and was ready, with free feet, to root for the home team with her little group.

You might be thinking, “Dusty feet are gross,” and actually I agree completely. After I’ve taken a neighborhood stroll, or otherwise been out shoeless, I can’t wait to get home and get clean. But from another perspective: it’s pleasant to enjoy the day as you gain peaceful tactile memories through your soles and interact with other folks in this humble way. The humorous, necessary result, so reminiscent of childhood, is a temporary footprint upon your own feet—-something you can laugh at yourself about and quickly wash away.

Years ago I visited a coastal town for a summer craft fair. My fisherman sandals lay on the floorboard, and I regretted not wearing a lighter pair. So I left them behind. With my touristy camera over my shoulder, I sighed with relief as I strolled the warm sidewalks. I spent a pleasant hour or so padding among the booths and shops, as barefooted as if I were collecting shells on the beach. A lighthearted thing to do, if a little risky, but what a nice summertime memory. I did see a few other folks shopping barefoot, affirming that I wasn’t the only eccentric.

Another community’s warm, artsy district announced a bohemian ambiance among its several stores of clothes, books, gifts, art, and jewelry. Remembering that coastal town a few years earlier, I decided to repeat the adventure. Wearing  jeans and a knit or camp shirt, I felt happy and intrepid as I made my way from store to store, visiting any that seemed interesting, and I collected several purchases. The contrast of cool shop floors with the warm sidewalk felt delightful. One clerk inside a rock and jewelry shop gave me a strange look, but I did purchase a necklace. Another clerk, standing outside a clothes and accessories store, saw me pause at the window display and invited me inside! Joining shoppers in their sneakers and sandals, I found the day’s last treasure, a purse for my wife.

I read a book about the soprano Cecilia Bartoli, who is known for taking off her shoes and enjoying the grass and earth. “When I was a little child,” she said, “one of the things that gave me the greatest pleasure was to go to the park across the street and have my feet feel the earth and the blades of grass.” A friend and I decided to take a walk as we chatted so we drove over to her favorite park without our shoes on and strolled around: so peaceful!

In Ohio, a couple of favorite nature trails have grassy and dirty paths. I first took the trails in in walking shoes, so I knew the terrain and later felt okay about bringing no shoes or sandals. One of the trails alternated between pretty timber and open meadows, and included a few small hills to climb, plus the trail offered the comforting, nostalgic sight of an old barn as the path curved around and back into timber. A small bridge forded a stream that was sadly polluted, a shade of bright orange. But there was also a green pond where frogs croaked and turtles peaked above the surface. I watched my strolling toes, kept an eye out for stones on the trail, and on slopes I was aware of my toes digging into the soft earth for traction. On a stretch of damp soil I noticed behind me that my heels made small dents in the earth, a modest footprint on the land.

Back in the 1990s, when I was driving across southern Indiana on a day of light rain, I decided to visit the Lincoln Boyhood Cabins near Dale, IN. I’d been there once. Wearing a light windbreaker and summer shirt with old jeans, and sandals discarded on the floorboard, I wondered if I could visit the cabin barefooted. One way to find out, so I strolled up the damp mulch path. The interpreter, in period clothing, was interesting to talk to, and I knew some thing about Lincoln’s life to ask questions. We kept chatting as we went down the path. I felt lightheartedly pioneer-like having bare feet, which felt good in the light rain.

Unfortunately I had no big road trips this summer, the sidewalks in my new neighborhood are comparatively rough, and my ankle tendonitis was flaring up so I always took walks with supporting shoes. Maybe these times are over for me. But there is that famous piece wherein an old woman writes that if she could live her life over she’d start going barefooted earlier in the spring and stay that way till later in the fall. I enjoyed embracing that philosophy over the years and, who knows, between now and the end of Indian Summer there will still be nicely warm days for this kind of humorous walking.


No Shoes, No Problem

This summer has been so hot, and I’ve limited outdoor time to the cooler morning hours.  I remembered a long-ago, perennially shoeless neighbor who grew up in Tucson and said the sidewalks were so hot, that she had to throw a towel on the sidewalk as she went barefoot. That made me laugh; you certainly couldn’t walk anywhere very quickly!

But that’s a cheerful thing to think about: deciding, as the day goes along, that staying barefoot is fine. It’s that moment when you think, “Should I slip back into my shoes?” but you think, “Oh, heck, why bother?” Many of us do like to putter around the house and yard shoeless. I like to rake leaves that way. The other day, I paused and chatted with a neighbor who worked shoeless in the yard, trimming plants and pulling weeds and tossing them temporarily onto the sidewalk. I said how much fun going barefoot is; my neighbor said she goes outdoors without shoes on to do something and then just continues that way with other yard chores. Wading for an hour or so in the tilled soil and mulch made gardening more enjoyable.

Once in a while, some of us like to feel “at home” beyond our yards. Shoeless walks, for instance, are so comfortable and relaxing (as long as I watch for pebbles and acorns on the sidewalk). Even a very short walk is delightful. “I’m always barefooted!” said an acquaintance when we were outside. The funny motions of the feet when you walk—the way the soles present themselves behind you, the pushing off of the toes and their emphatic landing—feel cool and light when you’re out and about barefoot in summertime.

One time a friend stopped by my dorm room and wanted to know if I wanted to go to the neighborhood market, an easy walking distance. I was ready for a break from studying and, glancing at my feet, I thought, “Oh, heck, I’ll just stay barefoot.” My friend and I had a nice early autumn saunter as we chatted about this and that, and the path to the store felt so good.

In one town where we lived, I often walked to the neighborhood market without my shoes. I watched my toes negotiate the various surfaces like sidewalks, grassy spaces, warm asphalt, and finally I enjoyed the chilly smoothness of the floor as I browsed for my items. The store owner was a joy to chat with—a nice friend at the time, we even talked about religion!—and praised me for my eccentricity. “I’m glad you go barefoot! I would, too, but customers give me dirty looks. But my feet are never anywhere close to the food, so what’s the problem?”

Places “where everyone knows your name” are precious, but it isn’t every day that you’re encouraged to be shoeless in public. I enjoy thinking of conversing with the owner as I stood by the checkout stand barefooted, as if I were standing at my kitchen counter. One day I stopped by the store in sandals, and the owner jokingly scolded me. I’d unintentionally denied her a cohort in escaping shoes for a while.

Forgoing shoes can be adventurous, because if plans change, you’ve committed yourself. I remember seeing two laughing friends in our savings and loan place. One had business but kept being sent to other offices. The friend, whose bare feet made hasty, gentle thuds upon the tile floors, was along for company but hadn’t expected the errand to be so complicated. During another summer, I decided shoes were unnecessary just to get an ice cream cone. I was the only unshod customer, but the line moved slowly, and the pavement was hot. I kept shifting as if I were practicing dance positions.

Back in the 1980s, I taught a history discussion section of a large lecture course. Such classes are scheduled in any available space, and this one happened to meet in a chemistry classroom. Signs warned students to wash their hands and keep their shoes on because of the chemicals. That didn’t deter one of my students, however, who came to class without her shoes on, every class period, well into autumn. She wasn’t bold and outgoing, but rather shy and quiet, crossing her ankles beneath the chair. I hope she doesn’t glow in the dark because of the chemicals, or turned into a super hero.

When my daughter was little, sometimes I wore no sandals (or had them off but nearby) when I took her to friends’ houses or to summer camp. I chuckled when a parent of one of her buddies wore no shoes when she drove Emily back home at the end of an afternoon. “Great minds.” One afternoon, I was working around the house when the time came to retrieve my daughter from “zoo camp.” I assumed she would be tired and we’d return home, so I passed on my flip flops. But, not in the least tired, she wanted to visit the zoo gift shop. As it turned out, bare feet provided agility for negotiating a crowd of parents and kids among displays of toys, books and plush animals as I kept up with a small, laughing daughter on the move. I did miss the humor of being barefooted in a jungle-theme place.

Going barefoot used to be a fad, and running errands without shoes was, though not an everyday occurrence, something you’d notice—or do. Leaving our local IGA, I saw an acquaintance heading into the store. She was dressed in her cool top and jeans and carried her purse, but her feet were bare. I assumed she had one of those pleasant “oh, heck” moments when she was already shoeless at home and decided to just stay that way for other tasks, in this case, a trip to the grocery.

When you’re shoeless while wearing a nice casual outfit, the contrast is another quirky thing about deciding, as the day goes along, that staying barefoot is fine. There is a photo online of Jackie Onassis shopping in Italy in stylist summer clothes, but no shoes. I chuckled when a classmate left the dorm for an autumn class, ready for the day in bare feet, warm clothes, down vest, and books and coffee mug in hand. I did that kind of thing, too; heading to the little market, for instance, I’d put on my old straight-legged jeans and camp or knit shirt and, if the day was chilly, a zip-up hoodie, and enjoy a good walk.

Back in the 80s, I noticed a little family in the grocery store. The father was barefoot and wearing linen slacks and shirt that you sometimes see folks wear to the beach on a chillier day. The rest of the family wore shoes. Over the years, whenever I’ve noticed a barefooted parent accompanying children with their shoes on, I jokingly wonder if the parent fussed and begged to stay barefoot until the kids say, “Okay, but just this once, and be careful!”

After the 100+ weather last week, cooler temperatures finally arrived. What a treat that the sidewalks and driveway weren’t so hot to the touch for bare feet and I could spend a time shoeless. Devoting a morning to house and yard work, I hauled old boxes from the basement (we just moved), I carried some stuff to the garage, and loaded the car with a few things for Goodwill, then I got the trash and recycling to the curb for morning pick up. Working in the garage is kind of gross, because one’s soles soon become unpresentable. At one point in my mighty labors, another neighbor stopped to chat. Once those chores were done, I decided I’d move to the porch and work on the laptop. After writing a while, I took a break and ambled down the street, still holding my laptop. I happened into the neighbor I mentioned at the first, also taking a walk. I chuckled that she’d caught me barefooted, she said that was okay because I caught her barefoot that other morning!

Aged seven or eight, I went to the park a half-block away, and I didn’t realize I was shoeless until I stepped on some thistles. In childhood, you go about your day’s pleasures and not think about shoes unless your parents insist on it. We adults don’t set out with the goal of a fun day, forgetful of our unprotected feet until we’re out and about and something reminds us. It did happen to me another time, when my family and I were staying at a lodge and relaxing in the characterful great room, with a nice adjoining gift shop and coffee bar. The next morning, I couldn’t find my flip flops in our room and realized I’d kicked them off downstairs the evening before as we drank coffee and then shopped. If you like to, going barefoot is a pleasant return to childhood and, once in a while, you feel so comfortable with nothing on your feet that you’re okay with not putting shoes back on, or even better, you relax and forget.


Out and About Barefoot

The past few years, I’ve had an end-of-summer-post about going barefoot. I like having at least a few times during the summer when I’m out and about without my shoes on. Often, these are neighborhood walks. In our previous neighborhood, for instance, the relatively new sidewalks were smooth and warm. I loved to set out on a nice day for a stroll. A few neighbors were similarly inclined, like the neighbor who liked to kick off her shoes before walking her beagle.

A few years ago I found a website about how to cheer up when you’re blue, and among bits of advice, the website encouraged “taking humor risks.” “When you are stuck in your own thoughts, do something just a little wild to get out of it. And do the same thing to help a friend who needs a good laugh.” (http://www.beliefnet.com/Inspiration/2009/03/Cheer-Up-and-Laugh-Out-Loud.aspx?awid=5551460903877276033-1820) That’s a good way to think about my occasional forays without shoes. Even if I’m not so blue, it’s a cheerfully foolish little thing to do that can get me out of the doldrums, or add some humor to whatever I’m doing.

Sometimes, during a road trips, I like to tiptoe shoeless into a crafts store or gift shop in a small town. My sandals are kicked off in the car and I feel reluctant to put them back on. Surprisingly perhaps, I nearly always get very warm service, and I always purchase something at such stores. securedownload-8This summer I found something I’d misplaced, a plaque with a picture of John Wayne and a saying, “Courage is being scared to death, and saddling up anyway.” I had stopped in a small town to take a break from a long drive, and decided to stroll among the antique malls without my shoes. Browsing in one nice shop (where the AC seemed to be underfunctioning, so I was glad I stayed cool), I noticed the plaque at my feet. I bought it and later did an internet search about the quotation. Apparently Wayne never said that in any of his movies, but it’s still an apt quotation: a simple reminder to not let our fears get the better of us.

I thought of the quotation again this summer as I was deeply worried about something (a symptom that turned out to be nothing). This summer, as the family chilled out, I decided to take a walk to the shops of the popular mountain town where we were staying. Using my worry as a reason (as if I ever needed one) to cheer myself with a shoeless walk, I kicked off my flip-flops and loved the feeling of the warm sidewalk as I padded down the way. Stopping at some shops, I found items for myself and for gifts. One clerk approvingly said she took off her shoes off in the store but her feet still gets dirty from people traipsing in from the street all day.

Another cheerful thing about going barefoot, is that you discover other people who also like to, the way you discover someone else with a common interest, for instance someone who likes Monty Python and can recite humorous lines from the Holy Grail movie. Something I haven’t done for a long time, but will have to think about for next summer, is to undertake a project that doesn’t require shoes. Forty years ago this summer, for instance, I copied the inscriptions in our family cemetery, and for a summer morning spent wading in the grass, I figured shoes were unnecessary. Sometimes during student days, I’d tiptoe to the library with my sandals in my book bag and do research; my feet felt wonderful and I was highly productive.

My wife Beth and I have done household projects (like wallpapering a bathroom, oy) for which I skipped putting shoes on because I needed to stay cheerful for difficult work. I may jumpstart my old interest in rural landscape photography and devote some days barefoot.

Read Full Post »