One of my favorite movies is Chocolat, with Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp, whose characters in the story represent a threat to the ‘tranquility’ of a small French village in the year 1955. Because this month’s worship theme is harmony, I found myself wondering, are tranquility and harmony the same thing? Well in this particular story, they are.

Even though harmony is a term we tend to associate most with sound, the reasons something sounds harmonious, or in harmony, are similar to things other than just sound. So we can ask ourselves, for example, does something we experience as harmonious convey a sense of tranquility? In this sense, an encounter with harmony evokes a physical reaction – a tangible feeling of……??

Think about it (play a chord on the piano). How does this type of harmony make you feel? Does it bring a smile to your face? Does it strike a chord somewhere inside of your being that evokes a sense of ….  peace, tranquility, happiness, beauty? Think about it, if something isn’t in harmony (play an irregular chord on the piano), what kind of emotions get evoked inside of you? Do you kind of involuntarily wince? Does your internal voice instantly interrupt and you find yourself thinking, does that instrument need tuning? Did the player’s finger hit a wrong note? Oh well, I hope that unpleasant sound interruption was a one-time occurrence.

Harmony is an interesting thing to think about because it’s so multi-dimensional – kind of like the facets on a cut diamond; depending on the angle light hits them, there is some kind of satisfaction being reflected back during your encounter.

For me, harmony is a very pleasant thing. Perhaps it’s due in part to the fact I grew up with music. My parents both played the piano, and we hauled an old upright around with us until my mom traded it off for a nifty and more compact spinet. I began taking piano lessons in the second grade, and until I graduated from high school, played in the school band. I still have my grandparent’s collection of 78 record albums, and at one point, we had an old record player that would actually play them.

My mother grew up dancing to the swing bands of the 1940s and so taught her daughters to dance; and in my baby book she wrote the top musician when I was born was Elvis Pressley. I wanted to be like the folk singer, Joan Baez, but regretfully, I never got around to taking guitar lessons – but I do know the words to her songs and am a proficient privacy-of-my-own car singer! 

When I was in college taking methods classes in preparation for my stint as a public-school teacher, I learned about various learning modalities, and realized I’m an auditory learner, which, for me, means I can listen to a lecture, a movie, a conversation, or a musical piece – and not have to take notes or even have my eyes open. In fact, I tend to internalize what is coming in through my ears better if I do have my eyes closed – ask anyone whose been with me during our Thursday drumming circles – eyes-closed, auditory experiential participation.

If experiencing harmony is a corporeal experience, then what is it that transcends our physical body and can describe other-worldly experiences?

In the movie Chocolat, a harmonious tranquility was experienced as kind of smoothness and so the patterns of daily life were smooth, to the point of being boring in fact. There was the mayor whose aristocratic family had been doing a good job of taking care of the village and its residents for generation, and so everyone knew what was expected of them and they didn’t create a fuss about the way things had always been. Apparently, if you didn’t like it, then you could leave – of suffer alone and in secret.

There was the church which, in this story, is the Roman Catholic church. The new young priest, who happens to have a weakness for Elvis Pressley, has recently replaced the old priest who had been with the parish for over fifty years. And going to a Catholic church service, anytime in history, means you are basically saying and doing the exact same words and rituals which have been done for over well over 1000 years. The sense of comfort rising from a peaceful, smooth continuity is a defining feature of the Catholic service – always a harmonious experience.

Thanks to unquestioned social and religious norms, the state-of-being in this small community actually was tranquil, harmonious – there was no room for changes which might be disruptive to, what can be compared to, the surface of this very calm and still pond.

When I was in Junior High and we attended the beautiful St. Luke’s Episcopal Church a few blocks from our home, every Sunday, the large, well-rehearsed, impeccably-robed choir led the congregation from their lovely loft in the back of the sanctuary. No matter where I sat though, I could see and hear one older gentleman who was pretty tall with shocks of unruly white hair, and whose name was Mr. Elliot Huidekoper. Not only was Mr. Huidekoper an ‘exiled-heir’ to the Dupont family fortune, he loved to sing – very boldly and enthusiastically. But, to many people’s chagrin, he was, what my musical ear told me, very tone-deaf. Listening to Mr. Huidekoper enthusiastically belt out all the words to the hymns was more than a child’s lesson in not gawking and giggling during church, looking back through my UU lens, it was a very valuable lesson in valuing diversity.

When everyone sings in harmony, it is a very pleasant thing to encounter. But when there are one or more individuals, who for whatever reason, cannot or do not contribute to the harmony – then what?

Life is explained to children in many different ways, and, for the most part, most explanations contain some kernel of truth; and so much of what the child actually learns is about their caregivers. For example, some explanations might sound like, Mr. Huidekoper is a very generous doner to the church and so he can sing as loudly and obnoxiously as he wants. Another explanation might sound like, why the church puts up with Mr. Huidekoper is none of our business, let’s not mention it again. Or, my favorite, isn’t it wonderful Mr. Huidekoper loves music so much? He brings such a delightful dimension to our tranquil, predictable Sunday services!

As I’ve thought about the significance of Mr. Huidekoper’s non-harmonious singing through the years, I have come to understand my inner UU was probably beginning to emerge from the deep places within my soul. My young self actually kind of admired this eccentric, nice old gentleman because he was brave enough to sing loudly (which I was not) and, he seemed to be unencumbered by the ‘what will people think’ social norms I’d grown up with. As a young girl trying to find her way in an indifferent and confusing world, I kind of wished I had the confidence to be so different and publicly share the enjoyment my differences gave me.

Small towns and religious communities have a lot in common when it comes to striving for and then maintaining a harmonious tranquil environment, especially because the majority of religious communities in the United States are organized around a doctrine – a set of answers to life’s tough questions where conformity is the process whereby the goal of existential peace, tranquility, and harmony are achieved. A doctrine can be compared to the score of music so all the musicians in the orchestra can play the same notes with the same intensity and timing – in music, harmony is achieved when everyone plays or sings the same notes, in the best way, at the same time. And this is a very good and enjoyable encounter for everyone.

But, as a doctrine-free religion, Unitarian Universalists (and other free-thinkers) are more like an ensemble of jazz musicians. An ear-pleasing harmoniousness is the goal, but the basic score we play from is less rigid and various degrees of non-conformity are allowed into the performance because more creative space is available for what each musician brings to the musical encounter. One of the things I love about jazz is when the spirit moves one of the musicians and they take off on a solo riff and the other band members just move out of the way and let it run its course. And, of course, when it has reached its end, we in the audience are expected to clap for this unplanned burst of creativity and enjoyment.

So how, then, can anything in life – from music, to living in a civic community, to participation in a religious/spiritual community, achieve and maintain ‘harmony’ when the most fundamental feature is diversity? Music, obviously, uses a musical score from which the musicians all play. A civic community uses laws and customs: like red means stop; pay your taxes so we can have schools, fire stations, and hospitals; and teach the children to say gazoonticht when someone sneezes.

But when it comes to religion, sometimes things aren’t so cut and dried. Because we are Unitarian Universalists and, most likely, many of us have rejected a doctrinal way of encountering the divine and living our values, then what is left? On one hand, no expectations, customs, or rules adds up to pure chaos. On the other had, too many expectations, customs and rules add up to oppression.

Where is the existential middle where many of us can be comfortable and functional striving for and living with harmony and dis-harmony at the same time? When we truly believe each person has inherent worth, goodness, and capability; when we truly believe each person is not only capable, but has a responsibility, to search for truth and meaning in their life; and when we truly believe we must strive for right-relationships which transcend outdated ideas and customs — beliefs that challenge us to introspection – individually and collectively – so unexamined biases and wrong ideas can be illuminated by the freedom and imagination of enlightenment. When we choose to be this kind of brave, free-thinking, curious, open-hearted person, then how is it that harmony can actually be created and be sustained? How do we achieve a peaceful, rewarding balance between harmony and dis-harmony?

Obviously, I have a few thoughts on that subject – no actually, I have quite a few thoughts on that subject and so will save them for another day – like maybe next Sunday, when, perhaps we can explore some of those how-do-we type questions together. Meanwhile, I hope each of us encounters something lovely and harmonious and this coming week, after all the universe is the grandest inspiration – that one reliable, perfect place where diversity is the source of a very real and universally-recognizable harmony.