Encountering Jessye

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Photo from Jessye Norman’s autobiography, Stand Up Straight and Sing!


I sing because I’m happy,
I sing because I’m free,
For His eye is on the sparrow
And I know He watches me.
  —Civilla D. Martin
 Jessye Norman has blessed me, my wife, and our six children since the late 1980’s.

Blessed is the only adequate word. With grace. With dignity. With healing.

Debra (my wife of some forty years) and I first “met” opera soprano Jessye, listening to her celestial “Christmastide (1988).” We witnessed and were utterly captivated by Jessye’s stunning artistry, vocal power, and sovereign dignity.

At just the right moment.

Bereft of joy, beauty, hope

We had emerged from five years in a soul-crushing religious organization. The hideous juxtaposition of a sacred mission with the cruelest treatment of individuals who had devoted their lives to what they/we thought was a noble cause left us largely bereft of joy, of beauty, of hope.

Years later, a spiritual companion observed that spiritual abuse of the kind we suffered, in its own way, is the worst abuse possible—going, as it does, to the most essential aspect of being human—the soul, the relationship to the divine and to ultimate realities.

Reawakened to sublime beauty

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Debra had always thrilled at the sights and sounds of Christmas, having been raised in an agnostic household, where spiritual things were absent. Absence, it seems, spurred an immense spiritual hunger and thirst, which Debra satisfied then (and does every year) by pulling out the stops for the Christmas season—magical music, lights, decorations, traditions, presents, favorite films (especially Alistair Sims’ Scrooge).

We endured a protracted experience of disrespect in what might be called a “culture of use”–of manipulation and depersonalization. The chronically soul-less, joyless blunting of our spiritual, intellectual, artistic, and even sensory capacities numbed us. Hearing Jessye in Christmastide re-awakened us to a sublime beauty that filled and buoyed up our battered souls.

We couldn’t have found a more healing medium than Jessye and her glorious music.

Music that means something to someone else

“I live a blessed life, filled with the sounds of music. I take enormous pleasure in seeing the effect that music can have on the emotions and spirits of people. . . . I don’t take such sentiments for granted. I know that making music that means something to someone else is a privilege.” (page 13, Stand Up Straight and Sing!)

Jessye, I make bold to call you by your first name, because I consider myself to be mysteriously blessed as a member of “an extended, multitudinous group” that you reference in your dedication. Ours is a bond not of blood, “but of respect and joy in each other’s life. Blest be the tie that binds.”

You, my precious sister in spirit, have played a singular role in healing our hearts after spiritual trauma, and causing us to believe that beauty, indeed, will save the world.

Your beauty—of spirit, of personhood, of exquisite music—indeed saved us. Healed us. Brought us back from a kind of death.

Beauty will indeed save the world

May my experience in reading Stand Up Straight and Sing! contribute in a small way to the project of co-creating a world, a culture, and a civilization in which the eternal verities of truth, goodness, and beauty reign supreme.

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Comments

  1. Bonny

    What a beautiful and gracious woman who helped you on your path of healing. I believe our ultimate reason for living is to improve the world and foster good will and support to all life.

  2. Thank you, Daniel, for bringing this beauty and grace to the forefront in our world today. The idea of spiritual abuse makes me cringe and Jessye’s voice brings light into the dark corners.

  3. Kevin

    I’ve always felt the best music is a kind manifestation of the spiritual world in ours, “on Earth as it is in Heaven.” Musical wonders like Norman are the channels!

  4. Daniel, This is a beautiful testament to the soul of healing. That one soul can reach another and reawaken those qualities most precious to life. The greatest of gifts.

    Your words concerning your own experience with spiritual abuse were also very powerful. To hear more of your journey back to the place of deep joy, hope and faith that you now live would be very inspiring. I hope you will write more of this.

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