The Mirror Cracked: Reflections on a Sabbatical

A chapel presented for UUA staff on 30 April 2013

Opening Words

by Andrew Pakula

We arrive together here
Travellers on life’s journey
Seekers of meaning, of love, of healing, of justice, of truth
The journey is long, and joy and woe accompany us at every step
None is born that does not die
None feels pleasure that does not also feel pain.
The tear has not yet dried on the cheek but the lips curve sweetly in a smile

Numerous are our origins, our paths, and our destinations
And yet, happily, our ways have joined together here today

Chalice Lighting

by Kathy A. Huff

Divine spark from sacred dark
Symbol of our holy intent
Illuminate this hour.

Sharing of Joys and Concerns

Allemande, Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007

Reading from The Lady of Shalott

by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And thro’ the field the road runs by
To many-tower’d Camelot;
And up and down the people go,
Gazing where the lilies blow
Round an island there below,
The island of Shalott.

Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Thro’ the wave that runs for ever
By the island in the river
Flowing down to Camelot.
Four gray walls, and four gray towers,
Overlook a space of flowers,
And the silent isle imbowers
The Lady of Shalott.

There she weaves by night and day
A magic web with colours gay.
She has heard a whisper say,
A curse is on her if she stay
To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
The Lady of Shalott.

And moving thro’ a mirror clear
That hangs before her all the year,
Shadows of the world appear.
There she sees the highway near
Winding down to Camelot:
There the river eddy whirls,
And there the surly village-churls,
And the red cloaks of market girls,
Pass onward from Shalott.

But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror’s magic sights,
For often thro’ the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights
And music, went to Camelot:
Or when the moon was overhead,
Came two young lovers lately wed;
“I am half-sick of shadows,” said
The Lady of Shalott.

A bow-shot from her bower-eaves,
He rode between the barley-sheaves,
The sun came dazzling thro’ the leaves,
And flamed upon the brazen greaves
Of bold Sir Lancelot.
A redcross knight for ever kneel’d
To a lady in his shield,
That sparkled on the yellow field,
Beside remote Shalott.

His broad clear brow in sunlight glow’d;
On burnish’d hooves his war-horse trode;
From underneath his helmet flow’d
His coal-black curls as on he rode,
As he rode down to Camelot.
From the bank and from the river
He flash’d into the crystal mirror,
“Tirra lirra,” by the river
Sang Sir Lancelot.

She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces thro’ the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She look’d down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
The Lady of Shalott.

The Mirror Crack’d

The Lady of Shalott, by William Holman Hunt, 1905. (Click for larger version. Source:
The Lady of Shalott, by William Holman Hunt, 1905.

Last fall and winter I was privileged to take a sabbatical. I lodged with old friends of mine who live in the suburbs of London, and spent nearly three months doing whatever took my fancy. It was lovely, and also deeply disruptive, giving me the distance to see my life and my choices about how I live more clearly.

At the time there was a major exhibit at the Tate Britain, “Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde.” It is currently at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. If you’re a fan of the PRB or late Victorian art, I recommend it. I joined the Tate before I left home, just so that I could go to this exhibit as often as I liked. I was glad to visit many old favorites, some of which I had seen previously, either in their permanent homes or in other exhibits. Among the works is this painting of the Lady of Shalott by William Holman Hunt, which I had previously seen only in reproduction. It was hung in the last room, in such a way that as I came around a corner, my eye fell directly upon it.

What a revelation! It captures the moment in the poem when she has just looked out the window. What I had never noticed before, because of the effects of reproduction, is how vivid the crack is. The mirror crack’d / from side to side. Hunt, who sought to encapsulate the whole poem, portrays her life exploding, while caught within the web of her own making. (Tennyson is reported not to have liked this artistic liberty.)

When confronted with the actual, large, painting, in addition to the crack leaping out at me from across the room, it was easy to see that the bright scene in the background is NOT the view out the window, but rather the reflection in the mirror. We, the artist and viewer, are standing in one of the archways of the Lady’s bower, with our back to Lancelot and the countryside.

The stanzas Chris read are only part of the poem. I not only excerpted it, I cut off the end. After looking out the window, the Lady goes down from her tower, finds a boat, writes her name on the prow, lies down in it, and floats off to Camelot, singing–and dying–as she goes. The people of the city find her body, and Lancelot says, “She has a lovely face; God in his mercy lend her grace, The Lady of Shalott.”

What a downer! Look at the real world and you die!

Yes, exactly. Look at the real world, and the illusions and confusions of your life will, if you are lucky, die.

So, directly seeing the Lady became, in a way, a mirror to my life.

A few weeks later I had several musical experiences that were more direct. First, a little context. Last July, my family found out that my mother had a serious medical condition, which she had been hiding. In August I went home for a visit, which coincided with a swarm of fairly large earthquakes. In September, she died of breast cancer. In October, I went home to spread her ashes. In November, I left for England. While in England, one of my great reliefs was that my father neither died nor became sick enough to ask me to return home (but he did spend a weekend in the hospital). My mother, during her illness, repeatedly asked/instructed me that her illness would not interfere with my sabbatical.

That’s a lot of baggage for a sabbatical to carry.

So when I went to the Church of St. Martin in the Fields just before Christmas to hear Handel’s Messiah, it’s not surprising that I thought of my mother, whom I remember singing in her former church’s Christmas concert, and that my experience of the music was filled both with joy and intense sadness.

The part that relates to today’s topic, however, is that, sitting there in my seat near the center aisle as the soloists walked out, I realized there were no mics. And that the soloists were standing no more than 30 feet from me. St Martin in the Fields is probably the size of King’s Chapel here in Boston. For a performance of the Messiah, I’d say that qualifies as an intimate, acoustic performance. And they put the brass for Glory to God in the organ loft above and behind us. Glorious.

I went back on Boxing Day and heard a concert of Baroque music that reminded me of dance classes in college, and my friend Barbara, whom I first met while in college, who died of pancreatic cancer and who inspired a previous chapel. More grief. And yet also a visceral sense of being alive. I went downstairs at the interval and bought tickets to three more concerts.

The final concert, just a few days before I returned home, was Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. I was in the second row. I’m happy to describe the experience some other time. I’ll just say that no recording, and in fact no amplified concert, could come close to the richness of being that close to the musicians and hearing the individual parts so distinctly.

As much as I dearly love listening to recorded music, I hope that I never again confuse a recording of music with a performance of music.

William Penn, a somewhat unlikely person to have something of wisdom to say about music, wrote some words that I feel apply. (And they are not, in fact, about music!)

In “Some Fruits of Solitude,” in a section about Religion, Penn writes,
505. Death then, being the Way and Condition of Life, we cannot love to live, if we cannot bear to die.
506. Let us then not cozen our selves with the Shells and Husks of things; nor prefer Form to Power, nor Shadows to Substance: Pictures of Bread will not satisfie Hunger, nor those of Devotion please God.
507. This World is a Form; our Bodies are Forms; and no visible Acts of Devotion can be without Forms. But yet the less Form in Religion the better, since God is a Spirit: For the more mental our Worship, the more adequate to the Nature of God; the more silent, the more suitable to the Language of a Spirit.

In life, as in religion, it is better to prefer the substance to the shadow, the power to the form, the actual to the image.

I love the cello, and Bach’s solo cello suites are fairly familiar, so I thought it would be a useful contrast to give you the opportunity to hear music directly as part of this chapel service. Here is a musician, Emily Taubl, with her cello. There you are. What you hear will depend on where you are sitting, and the condition of your hearing, and how you feel, and how Emily feels, and the specifics of her cello and her bow. My apologies to those online, who will hear a performance via microphone and speakers. But even for you, what you experience will depend on where you are sitting, and what is going on around you, and how you are listening.

I invite you to revel in the actual.

Musical Reflection

Prelude, Suite No. 1 in G major
Courante, Suite No. 1 in G major


Go now in awareness of what is within you, and around you, and among you.