Beauty & Truth

February 03, 2019
Psalm 19:1-6; John 15:1-5

Those of you who were here a few years back and who listened to me deliver what was probably the longest sermon in Hyattsville’s history will remember that my sermon that day focused on the missing faces in the history of western Maryland, a part of Maryland that has come to be dear to my heart. These missing faces, as has been so often the case in our history, were the faces of African-Americans.

For those of you who wish to revisit that history, I’ll put a clickable link in the print version of this sermon so that when Jake posts it on the Hyattsville website, you’ll be able to find it.

I thought I would give you a brief update on a small piece of that history. During my research, I ran across a clipping from the Baltimore Afro American newspaper. Dated 1936, the incident described an African American choir being denied service at a hotel near Oakland, MD. A choir festival was being held at Mountain Lake Park at the old Chautauqua site, which site included a 3,500 seat theater that was considered an architectural marvel in that there were no internal pillars or other obstacles in the sight lines. This African American choir from Pittsburgh was invited to sing as a special guest at the festival. When the choir arrived at the Mountain Lake Hotel, however, they were denied entry into the dining room where they had made and confirmed their dinner reservations. The white director of the choir festival protested to the hotel management but to no avail.

The African American population of Oakland had by that time dwindled to one family: that of Otis and Gwendolyn Swan. Mr. Swan, a Bermuda-born tailor, took charge of the situation: he ordered food from the kitchen of another hotel and fed the choir in his home.

This sort of situation was all too familiar for African Americans: indeed, there was even a series of travel guidebooks called The Green Book for African American who traveled by car. The guidebooks were rather like the AAA guidebooks, only they listed where traveling African Americans might be able to safely find food and lodging in towns and cities across the U.S., thus avoiding the humiliation and often the flat-out danger of traveling while black. The New York Public Library has made copies of these Green Books available as part of their digital collection, and I’ll put a link to them in the on-line version, too.

After getting over my initial dismay and anger over yet another insult to guests of honor who were nevertheless treated like dirt simply because the color of their skin, my musical curiosity awakened: the choir director was named in the article: Mary Cardwell Dawson. Just who was she?

I wasn’t long in finding out: originally from North Carolina, the Cardwell family moved to the Pittsburgh area around 1900 where Mary’s father had found work at a brickyard in Homestead. Mary was the second of the six Cardwell children. While the whole family was always interested in music, Mary turned out to be the most talented, and so around 1920, she left Homestead for Boston and the New England Conservatory of Music, one of the few advanced music schools that would accept African American students.

After graduation, she returned to the Pittsburgh area and opened a music school, the Cardwell School of Music. In addition to a school, she also acquired a husband named Walter Dawson, who would become her manager. The school prospered. Student recitals were well-received, and the choir from the school became quite well-known locally. It was this choir that was on the receiving end of the insult recorded in the newspaper clipping. A choir from her school would go on to sing at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, as well as at other famous venues.

But Mary had a vision beyond her singing school: while in Boston, she had attended a performance of Giuseppi Verdi’s Aida and had noticed that of the 200+ cast members and extras, not a single one was black. Rather than attempting to integrate the Boston Opera, she decided to create her own opera company in Pittsburgh: the National Negro Opera Company. The company debut was made in 1941 with a fully-staged production of Verdi’s Aida at Pittsburgh’s famous hall, the Syria Mosque. The lead performers were all African American. The performance received glowing reviews.

I will leave the future course of Mary Cardwell Dawson’s career to your explorations, although I will give you a hint: she moved the company to Washington DC, with headquarters at 9th and T Streets, NW, and continued to stage operas here, including along those large steps down to the Potomac River near the Watergate–a traditional summer concert venue for Washington. If you have access to an online database of back issues of the Washington Evening Star and the Washington Post, you’ll see the notices of their performances.

Mary Cardwell Dawson passed away in 1962. Among her proteges were Robert McFerrin, Sr., the first African American man to sing with the Metropolitan Opera—he made his debut just a few months after Marian Anderson made hers—and jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal.

But for me there is a deeper issue here: Mary Cardwell Dawson was always involved with  church music as well, and in thinking about her and her career, I inevitably returned to the connection between beauty and religious experience. Mainly because I consider grand opera to offer some of the most sublime of artistic experiences. So what if any could be the connection between beauty and religious experience?

Beauty has long been part of the basic language of religious experience—indeed, one might well say that beauty is part of the definition of our encounters with the sacred.

Psalm 27:4 “One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to enquire in his temple.

Psalm 96:6 “Honour and majesty are before him: strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.”

And as we heard earlier:  “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament sheweth his handiwork…”.

And what is this but an aesthetic criterion: beauty not only points to but seems intimately connected to the divine. It might even be stated that beauty is a prerequisite for the divine, so in that a sense, beauty is not a theological category; rather, theology may be an  aesthetic category. The Good, the Beautiful and the True are all rolled into the One.

It’s not a question of obvious propaganda: there is no sign in the sky that reads “Yahweh made this!”–the signature of some divine graffiti artist. No. We look at the sky and—perhaps but not always—we pause for a moment, taken in by a sense of wonder and humility. Great as we might be, it’s still greater than we are.

In our tradition, we have tended to shy away from beauty per se on the grounds that it was idolatrous. Our spiritual ancestors got rid of anything that looked or sounded like decoration in our worship spaces. No organs, no choirs, for many of us, no four-part harmonies, no drapes, nothing to beautify our places of worship. Yet we still sought out and embraced beauty. Even plain and simple Old Order Amish gardeners will still plant rows of flowers, “just for pretty.” There are Amish calligraphers who will add old and florid scripts to some written materials. It’s called “fraktur,” and it’s old but it’s also “just for pretty.”

Perhaps our fear of an idolatry of things—what we call “materialism”–has caused us to back into the snare of the idolatry of words. Of course we use words. Lots of words. In the Roman Catholic tradition, the high point of the service is the Celebration of the Eucharist; but in our more Protestant tradition, the high point of the service is the sermon: words. After all, that’s why I’m up here saying all these things.

But while words may be, as Professor Dumbledore puts it, “our most inexhaustible source of magic,” words nevertheless don’t and can’t do everything. If they could, we wouldn’t need expressions like painting, sculpture, dance, or music—things which all peoples everywhere seem to have and to do. Expressions of beauty are essential to all our lives, and I believe we ignore them at the peril of losing our souls.

But I am glad to say that here at Hyattsville, we’ve long embraced the beauty of the arts as part of worship: we sing, we have fascinating and moving pieces of artwork in the sanctuary and we’ve even had liturgical dance. But we don’t often talk about why we welcome these acts or how they might function in connection with worship.

It may be tempting for us, captives of words that we are, to try to make these activities do the work of words. We might be tempted to limit artistic expression to simple formulas—in other words, to turn them into propaganda.

Perhaps we just need to let our artistic expressions just be what they are, and let them do whatever it is that they do.  There are no words that do what a Bach prelude does. If there were, Bach would have written words instead of notes. There are no words that can do what one of Eva Beidler’s paintings does, or what some of these wonderful banners we have up front do. Beauty speaks for itself and in its own language. It’s up to us whether or not we hear it speak.

We do or we witness these things as a part of awakening our sense of beauty, of helping us remember that beauty itself can be a signal of transcendence. There may be all manner of things and acts around us that are declaring the glory of God, but if we are not awake to them, then we’re not able to see in them the possibilities for a celebration of holiness, a sense of the divine. To me, that’s what beauty is about: awakening us to transcendence. And what is transcendence but Truth with a capital T—a capital T that nevertheless lies beyond capital letters?

Rather than expound any further, let me offer you a small piece of beauty in hopes that it will speak for itself. This is a folk song from the Auvergne region in central France. The song has been orchestrated for soprano and orchestra. It’s a simple shepherding song in which two shepherds sing to each other across a broad stream about where the best grazing might be found.  The song is sung in Occitan, which is the old language of southern France, Italy’s Occitan Valley, Monaco, and Spain’s Val d’Aran. Each verse consists of a call and a response, ending in the phrase bailero lero lero.


Voice 1: Shepherd across the water, are you having a good time? Call « baïlèro lèro », Voice 2: It’s not so great: you call « baïlèro lèro »!

Voice 1: Shepherd, the meadow is in full flower; this is where you should tend your flock, Call « baïlèro lèro» ,

Voice 2: The grass is better in the pasture over here: « baïlèro lèro»!

Voice 1: Shepherd, how will I manage? Over there is the little stream, Call « baïlèro lèro »Voice 2: Wait for me; I am coming to get you: « baïlèro lèro »!

Enough with words. The orchestration is by Joseph Canteloube; the soprano is Netania Devrath, and the orchestra is conducted by Pierre de la Roche.





24 The Lord bless thee, and keep thee:

25 The Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee:

26 The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.