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  • Writer's pictureRebekah Cochrane

Finding Sanctuary in the Stranger

Refuge.  Shelter.  Sanctuary.  Hiding Place.  Haven.  Heaven.

What is your hiding place?  

Where do you find security?  

How do you tend to others’ need for shelter?  

For whom are you a refuge?

Grand Marais Lighthouse on Lake Superior, obscured by cloud and sea smoke on Christmas Day 2017. Photo by Rebekah Cochrane

In March I started singing with a new choir.  After leaving choir behind in college I hadn’t made singing a priority in recent years. In the last couple of years I have popped in and out of my church choir, but hadn’t made it a permanent fixture in my life.  So when I received the music for my new choir’s spring concert and saw one single piece of music that was 40 pages and six movements long… alongside several other pieces… I was pretty intimidated.  As I listened to it and focused on my part of this multi-movement work, I was even more discouraged by rhythms and harmonies that were challenging and unfamiliar. What did I get myself into?  How could I learn all of this music when I could barely tap out the rhythm?

When the choir finally gathered together for our first rehearsal after everyone had been practicing the music on their own, we sang through the full work.  40 pages that I had listened to on recordings over and over again, six movements that I had muddled through with little confidence.  On page 16 the second sopranos, my part, move from making these strange sliding, sighing noises… mm ba, mm ba, mm ba…  to a meditative chant of na’n’n’na’n… while the rest of the choir sings a phrase that builds on itself.  I will be your refuge, I will be, we will, we will be your, we will be your refuge.  And as that last phrase is sung, we will be your refuge, there is one part that is totally silent.  The second sopranos.  

In what I found to be perhaps the most profound and deeply moving line of the entire piece, dare I say the entire concert, I was silent.  In that moment, the first time that I had sung this music among my new choir - strangers - people who were far more skilled singers than me, I found my own refuge.  In the music, in this community singing profound words.  The words, the music, the people… held me. And it was from that place of being held that I could begin to imagine how this music could speak to a kind of refuge far beyond my choir folder.

This 40 page, six movement work is called To the Hands and is a composition of Caroline Shaw. (listen to a recording of it here)  The whole work points towards the care, concern, sanctuary, and refuge that people and groups of people offer and receive in different moments of life. The music creates scenes that unfold upon one another: unsettling, wordless sounds… to the woundedness of others and the wounds in the middle of our own lives… to the 19th and 20th century immigrants arriving on the Eastern shores of America… to an elderly grandmother remembering her life as she now sits alone… to a litany of numbers representing global figures of internally displaced persons… finally ending with a quiet promise to hold, love, and enfold.

Throughout the piece, Shaw repeats a phrase that she borrows from a 17th century cantata… quid sunt plagae istae in medio manuum tuarum… what are these wounds in the middle of your hands?  Echoing, perhaps, the words of the disciples who encountered the resurrected Jesus or the words of those who have received immigrants battered by storms, travel, and trauma, or the words of those who care for the elderly in their last days.  But perhaps they ought to be our words, too. Wondering aloud to each other “what are these wounds” that you bear.  Holding out our own wounded hands to tenderly care and be cared for.

We are all trying to survive in these days of supercharged politics, blatant and unabashed hatred that gets passed on from generation to innocent generation, and fear that lurks behind every corner and flag and unfamiliar face.  Shaw eventually turns the 17th century latin phrase around… what are these wounds in the middle of our hands? When we curl our fists to fight, what if we let our fingers fall open to reveal the marks we bear on our own bodies and lives?  Not as a way of saying “my pain is worse than yours”, but as a way of connecting… a way of seeing the brokenness of the world… a way of holding, loving, and enfolding the stories and experiences of others and ourselves so that these wounds in the middle of our hands begin to heal.  So that we can both be a refuge for others and trust others to be a refuge for us, all for the sake of heaven… the world as it should be.

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