Lift Up Thine Eyes

liftupthineeyesArtist: Norman Rockwell

Commentary by Jaren Hinckley
Associate Professor of Music

This painting depicts the entryway to St. Thomas’ Church in New York City, with one of the curates or assisting priests posting the title of that day’s service—“Lift Up Thine Eyes.” Meanwhile, busy city-dwellers hurry by, eyes cast downward, choosing to look at the grimy pavement rather than up at the beautiful edifice, the statues of saints, the white doves flying by, etc. This work of art spoke to me personally on a number of levels. I have noticed that when I walk to and from the parking lot to my office each day, I tend to look down at the pavement. Certainly some of this is due to caution—to make sure I don’t trip, but mostly it’s due to habit. And what do I see? I see pavement and dead leaves and fragments of litter. I have to remind myself to look up occasionally to see the beauty of my surroundings. When I do look up while walking to my office each day, I see trees and sculptures and the faces of passers-by—a much more inspiring and uplifting view than cement. And when we keep our eyes cast down all the time, we’re bound to miss something. In the case of this painting, the people are missing the opportunity for spiritual growth and edification (not to mention the irony of the title of the sermon).

This painting also reminded me of one of the “highlight” musical moments of my life thus far. My family and I recently had the opportunity to live in Vienna, Austria for three and a half months. While there I often walked down Kärntnerstrasse, which is a pedestrian-only shopping area. This street is crowded with tourists, buskers, and shoppers, the signs of commerce jutting out from every wall, including McDonald’s. I probably walked along that street twenty times before I noticed the Malteserkirche. Nestled amongst all the shops, restaurants, and night clubs was a fairly non-descript building with a plain door and a drapery in front of it. Throughout Vienna, historically-significant sites are marked with a red and white cloth hanging over the door. And in some cases, you could easily walk right by a fascinating site unless you “lifted up your eyes.” I did lift up my eyes and decided to enter this not-overly-impressive-looking church. There were only three worshippers in the pews of this small edifice, but I was immediately struck by three things at the exact same time: #1) the smell of wood chips burning in the thurible. This pleased me because usually it’s the smell of incense, of which I am not overly fond. #2) The lone priest singing Mass. The singing voices of priests vary wildly in quality, but this priest had a purity of voice that touched me deeply. I would describe the music as plainchant except for #3) the organ music accompanying him had simple but beautiful chords to enhance his singing. As a musician and music historian I found this fascinating because it really sounded as though the music he was singing was likely originally true plainchant—non-metrical, monophonic plainchant—but the addition of the organ, most likely improvised, was what really blew me away. This was non-metrical music and yet the singer and organ were perfectly together in every way. I was left to assume that they had worked together for years and could sense when the other was going to move to the next pitch or phrase. I almost want to declare this type of music a completely new genre! Taking all of this in, in a matter of seconds, I began to cry, partly because of how beautiful the music was, but mainly because these two musicians were creating beautiful music not for an audience, but for the glory of God. Very few people that day would take note of these two musicians. Indeed, very few were even aware of their existence that day. But they were aware—they lifted up their eyes and praised God and, undoubtedly, received blessings for their devotion.
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