Bishop Marc: Reflections on 9/11

From the Tuesday, 9/11, 12:10 Holy Eucharist at Grace Cathedral —

There are two things I’ve been thinking lately about the nature of the universe. First, it was begun as an act of love. Secondly, the universe seems to be created in such a way that when a trauma occurs, big or small, galactic or at the personal level of the circle of our lives, music emerges to bring healing. 

Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker recount in their engrossing recent book, Journey of the Universe, that radiating out from the Great Flaring Forth was not only all the matter of the universe, but also stupendous waves of sound. The sound coursed through the expanding matter and literally gave shape to the universe. Thus, Mary Evelyn and Brian concluded, Pythagoras was right when he said the universe was created by music. 

Today, the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks is the day that Holy Women/Holy Men has designated to remember and honor Henry (Harry) Thacker Burleigh. Mr. Burleigh was an African American musician — vocalist and composer — who was born in 1866 and died 81 years later. 

As a little boy, Harry spent lots of time with his grandfather, a former slave who had been blinded in a savage beating by his owner. His grandfather gave him the gift he could give him, from a person of extremely limited financial and material resources, the priceless treasure of African American spirituals.

Harry Burleigh became, extraordinarily, a student at the National Conservatory in New York, headed in those decades by Antonin Dvořák. It is virtually certain that Harry Burleigh gave Dvoŕák Goin’ Home and Swing Low which made their way into the beautiful, unforgettable, and yes, healing 9th Symphony, From the New World. 

As significantly, Burleigh’s own compositions and concerts, which were popular and strongly attended, brought African American Spirituals to a broad American audience. Most prominently, the beautiful Deep River — which was so great a comfort to the great progenitor of the Civil Rights Movement, Howard Thurman — was orchestrated and popularized by Burleigh. 

From an underprivileged and thus unlikely and obscure source came healing music for the sickness and trauma in the American soul that was racism towards African Americans. Love in the form of music healing a great trauma. 

I am the Episcopal Visitor for a great order of nuns in New York, in both Harlem and in Brewster, the Community of the Holy Spirit. Sr. Hèléne Marie, a member of the order and one of the Council that governs the order is a superb, sensitive, alive musician. After the 9/11 attacks, Hèléne Marie and other sisters made their way to St. Paul’s Chapel, immediately across the street from the Twin Towers. How to help in the face of such a tremendous shock and tragedy? In addition to many other ways of helping, my friend made this contribution: she began playing Bach to sooth and offer healing to first responders, survivors, and families of victims. She kept up this ministry of music for several weeks, and also enlisted other musicians from all over Manhattan, and so the healing was amplified.