You are the music,
while the music lasts

Continuing our “Episcopalians go to camp” theme begun yesterday…

By Roger Ferlo

Orkney Springs, Virginia is not an easy place to find. The trip south from the District seems designed to test your nerves. You start off on the DC Beltway—trial enough—and then you lurch onto the notoriously congested I-66, which you have to follow all the way to the end (a prospect that must haunt the nightmares of daily commuters), where it turns south on I-81 toward Woodstock. You then find yourself deep in Shenandoah country, passing road signs directing you to the Luray Caverns or the Skyline Drive. But you resist temptation. You make a right turn and then another right and then another right (or was it a left?) through gorgeous rolling hills until you finally stumble your way onto a steep incline of a road called the Orkney Grade, which will funnel you and your motorcar straight into the nineteenth-century—to the old mineral spa known as the Orkney Springs Hotel, owned lock, stock and water barrel by the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.

It was not always thus. For years Virginia Episcopalians owned the acreage to the west, where they long ago built a retreat center and an outdoor chapel—Shrine Mont, they call it, as close to building a cathedral that this die-hard low-church diocese will ever come. But folks must have had their eye on the hotel down the road for a long time, if only for fear that it would fall in on itself. It wasn’t until 1979 that the Diocese managed to purchase the ramshackle place. And now, completely refurbished in the simple style to which it has always been accustomed, it can sleep as many as 600 church people at a time. It’s a vast white-painted wooden pile five storeys high, each level completely ringed by its own complicated stretches of porch and outdoor stairs—an Escher print in 3-D, Shenandoah style. Virginia parishes vie fiercely for preferred weekend slots, when parishioners recover from the long drive on the interstates by gathering for fellowship in the Ladies Parlour on the second floor, or sharing potpie and cornbread dinners in the vast refectory hall, or submitting themselves to some serious lecturing or other sorts of pious carryings-on in the elegant third-storey ballroom with its floor to ceiling windows and its wide and gracious balconied porch.

Since moving to Virginia from New York City three years ago to teach at the seminary in Alexandria, I’ve been invited to Shrine Mont several times. I’ve preached from the curious stone pulpit in the outdoor chapel (which looks a little like a congealed lava flow), and I’ve lectured on art and the spiritual life to generously attentive crowds in that lovely ballroom. I’ve hiked up North Mountain to the fire tower surmounted by a cross, and eaten my share of canned fruit salad and pulled pork in the dining hall. It’s good to find a church spot where people remember to keep relatively quiet and to behave themselves and to say their prayers and to be nice to one another—behaviors that might seem pretty trite and obvious if they weren’t at such a premium in a church otherwise sorely bedeviled by lawsuits and name-calling and furious divisions. There’s a kind of country ordinariness at Orkney Springs that gives you a sense that church might go on being church even in spite of church.

I am prompted to thoughts like this because I just got back from spending a week in residence at the Orkney Springs Hotel doing something that had absolutely nothing churchy about it. For the past seven years, a remarkable cellist named Dorothy Amarandos, now in her 83rd year, has all but single-handedly organized a week-long music camp at the Orkney Springs Hotel—a summer camp for geeky adults. There were 48 of us this year, most of us middle-aged and older, many of us still relative beginners wrestling with this most recalcitrant and noble of instruments. When you look at the roster, you see that all of us were pretty successful type A personalities in high-powered jobs (there were five MD’s in the room, for starters). And yet there was nothing more humbling than what we had agreed to do last week, as we made ourselves vulnerable to each other and to our teachers in that most exposed of venues—a public recital. Learning to play the cello as an adult can be an isolating and lonely business. It’s seldom about success as we usually have experienced success. Few if any of us will ever get to a place where we would call ourselves cellists rather than cello players. The noise we make can be excruciating—no wonder we tend to keep our doors closed. And yet coming together like this for a week, guided by Dorothy and her immensely gifted colleagues, we all gave ourselves permission to break out of our lonely practice rooms, to play in consort with others—performing in trios, duets, and even in a full-voiced choir of 48 instruments, strains of Beethoven and Vivaldi echoing off the walls of that elegant third-floor ballroom. We were all engaged in kind of a secular ubuntu at Shrine Mont this past week.

As I say, there was nothing churchy about any of this, except, of course, that everything we did with and for each other in that quaint and gracious hotel was, at least for me, anyway, sacramental. In such a setting, prayer takes care of itself. On the last day of the workshop, there was a solemn little ceremony where Dorothy presented each of us with a certificate of congratulations. It was a sweet gesture, and touching to watch each of these highly accomplished people sheepishly come forward to accept our teacher’s simple tribute. The certificate included an epigraph from T.S. Eliot—“you are the music while the music lasts.” That line evokes for me the experience of that week in Orkney Springs, and the gift of quiet and hospitality that the diocese offered us in allowing us to use this gentle space. Sometimes the church does get it right.

For most of us, there is only the unattended

Moment, the moment in time and out of time,

The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,

The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning

Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply

That it is not heard at all, but you are the music

While the music lasts. There are only hints and guesses,

Hints followed by guesses; and the rest

Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.

T.S. Eliot, “The Dry Salvages,” from Four Quartets

The Rev. Roger Ferlo is Director of the Center for Lifetime Theological Education at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, where he also directs the Evening School of Theology. He was trained as a Shakespeare scholar, and frequently leads audience discussions on religion and drama for the Shakespeare Theatre Company of Washington, DC.

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