Musings on a hymn

    For the splendor of creation, which draws us to inquire,

    For the mysteries of knowledge to which our hearts aspire,

    When I started at Northwestern, I did not anticipate treasuring a favorite hymn. (I couldn't have told you, really, how a hymn was different from a chorale.) But I have one now, by the rather prosaic American poet Carl P. Daw, set to the mahogany-like tune that appears halfway through Holst's "Jupiter."

    For the deep and subtle beauties which delight the eye and ear, 

    For the discipline of logic, the struggle to be clear,

    We got back from Christmas Break last year to find the chain-link fences which had surrounded Harris Hall gone. A sophomore at the time, I had gone my whole tenure on campus without seeing the building's facade or without straying even a bit to the left of the sidewalk past the Arch (there was a fence there), so it was strange at first that you could see Harris Hall's door, or stick your hand, your head, or your whole self through that boundary. Within a few hours, a friend of mine posted on Facebook that you could pass between Harris Hall and West Fairchild without cutting through the ISRC/CRC garden. The entire area felt more open. South Campus made sense again. 

    For the unexplained remainder, the puzzling and the odd,

    For the joy and pain of learning, we give thanks to you, O God.

    I didn't understand the perfection of this improvement until much later. It was getting on near Finals Week, then, and I–exhausted from too many late nights in the library outputting work at the library and early mornings inputting caffeine at Unicorn–was trudging past University Hall. It was dusk, and I'd procrastinated on sports sites most of the day. Tonight would be tough, I thought, a real hateful sludge through music theory, and then sparkled at the top of my peripheral vision.

    I looked up. There was Harris Hall, newly naked; the Chicago/Sheridan fork, full of chilly, gray traffic; the students huddled from the wind, passing in and out of the Arch; the darkening sky; the spindly trees; and  above it all  Alice Millar Chapel: sturdy, buttressed, unobscured at last; looming, presiding, testifying as  lo and behold  its roof glittered in the sun. The tan stone roof an enormous shard of platinum. I was surprised by this building which I thought I knew well.

    For the scholars past and present whose bounty we digest, 

    For the teachers who inspire us to summon forth our best,

    Since Week 2 of Freshman Fall Quarter, I have gone to church at Alice Millar Chapel. I haven’t missed many Sundays: a few times I’ve been sick, once or twice I had too much work or laundry to do, and last autumn I missed a service: I was feeling queasy because I had just fasted for Yom Kippur. I didn't go to church at all as a child, you see: my Jewish dad and my Christian mom never quite got it into the routine. I didn't anticipate going to church in college, either, but now I can't imagine not having the chapel. The chapel for me, is where music is. The chapel is where it all comes together.

    For the human web upholding this noble enterprise,

    For the common life that binds us through days that soar or plod,

    I started going to church when I started singing in the Alice Millar Chapel Choir. I'm a choral music major, a field I chose because, in high school, choir seemed to me an act of service to a community. When I got to Northwestern, I heard that most of the choir ensembles were oriented towards performance for middling audiences. If you want an ensemble that loves being of service, I was told, if you want an ensemble where kids love to be in choir, you gotta go to the Chapel. 

    But now I'm intimately connected to Alice Millar for reasons more than music. The Chapel is my home at Northwestern, and the veil through which the larger world pierces the university. The congregation every Sunday is filled with real, working adults: people I will inescapably become. I started going to chapel because of the music. I stay because of the people.

    For this place and for these people, we give thanks to you, O God.

    Erected by a institution devoted to rationality, the collegiate chapel may seem incongruous or improper: Why build a temple to superstition in a garden of truth? But a university chapel honors the very thing which makes information, scholarship, language even, meaningful. It honors the leap to meaning: the gap between shapes on a page and words in our mind, between magnetized etches on a distant hard drive and text on your computer screen in Evanston. It honors the magical — the leap between heaven and earth — and so it celebrates every leap, including the crucial one between information and truth. When I started out as a college student, I didn't anticipate acquiring a favorite hymn, but the most important things I've learned at college are quiet, adult things, hushed and magical, like the virtue of a good, urgent conversation or the momentary glance, full of gratitude and encouragement, from a teacher's eyes. The most important things in the world, I've learned at college, are the importance of those small, solemn leaps.

    I don't believe, today, in the divinity of Jesus Christ. I'm not convinced Jacob who is Israel wrestled with anyone after sleeping on a granite Tempur-Pedic. My favorite version of the Bible is the lyrical but inacurrate King James; my favorite book is the almost agnostic Ecclesiastes. But I keep a faith, a musician's faith, for something vast and awesome transports warmed nitrogen into feeling, some cosmic magnum mysterium makes words glisten into meaning. That thing, that precious, divine thing, allows me  with not even a grown man's body or brain, with not even a sense of what the world two years from now will bring  to give a gift, through music, of something greater than myself. I worship the whirlwind that endows words with knowledge. I worship the leap.


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