From 1910 to 1931, Miles Farrow was the organist and choirmaster of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. One of his signature accomplishments was developing the famous “Purple Tone,” the unique sound of his choir of men and boys. When asked how he taught the boys how to achieve this sound, he would always reply that he did not teach them: the younger boys would simply “catch it” like catching a cold. The youngest choristers would sit with the choir and listen, sometimes for a full year, before being allowed to sing. When they were finally allowed to add their voices to the choir, the Purple Tone would come naturally. They had indeed “caught” it.
Farrow’s method wasn’t unique; plenty of choirs around the world still ask their probationers to listen for a period of time. But to “catch” something, rather than be taught, is a wonderful image. In that moment it is clear who is the student, but the teacher is hard to identify. At St. John the Divine, it was certainly Farrow, but also the older choristers and the gentlemen too. No doubt the organist bore much responsibility, as did the building with its acoustic and visual adornment, not to mention the liturgies and the calendar of services. All are inseparable from the act of singing worship, and all worked together to produce the Purple Tone. It was not merely a skill they were learning, but a whole spirit, a “germ,” which lodged in their imaginations and bore fruit in this particularly beautiful way.
Extend the image further: Many critics praised this choir’s tone, but how many more people were moved to pray by their music? How many visitors to the cathedral saw this choir singing and heard “the very stones crying out” in worship? How many vocations to ministry were nurtured by their daily offerings, how many evangelists strengthened, how many acts of justice encouraged by this community of prayer and praise? However these choristers caught the Purple Tone, this intentional, integrated, and public life of faith proved to be deeply contagious.
At this time of year, many of our churches give thanks to God for their students and their teachers. This year, I have been especially mindful of my debt to many teachers. Some have died, many are growing older, and I am increasingly grateful for the role they played in my life. Still, when asked what they taught me, I am always at something of a loss.
I have lost count of the facts I learned from them, the skills honed at their guidance, and even the wisdom gleaned from their lives. I am completely unable to condense their lessons into a pithy saying or a satisfying thesis. If What have they taught you? is an impossible question, then What do they mean to you? hits closer to the mark. But even this falls short.
We often presume that the relationship between teacher and student is chiefly one of exchange. The teacher has knowledge to impart, and the student receives it, digesting it according to interest, need, and ability. Under this system, any teacher could stand in just as well for any other, provided they had the same command of the material. Wikipedia could just as easily stand in for any number of human beings, and we could all get on with more enticing concerns than learning.
But when I think of my own teachers, their lessons are neither the first thing I remember nor the chief thing I value. In J.K. Rowling’s series of fantasy novels, Harry Potter and his friends value Hagrid as one of their favorite teachers at Hogwarts, even though his classes are far from ideal. The same is true with my own teachers. They may have impressed me from time to time with the elegance of their presentation. But at their best they have introduced me to a new world I didn’t know existed before, even though it was always right under my nose. They have fired my imagination with all the possibilities that world contains. And by their patient guidance and friendship, they have made their world my own, inducting me by long sojourn into its mysteries, its challenges, its promises, and its joys.
Of course the world my teachers inhabit is this world, our plain old, one and only, planet Earth. But their teaching enabled me to see farther, understand more deeply, act more maturely, and love more fully. I have been shaped their own peculiar character, and found myself in a company of fellow travelers who have scouted the way ahead.
Exactly who taught Miles Farrow’s choristers the Purple Tone is hard to say, without accepting his explanation that they simply “caught” it from each other. Likewise it is hard to describe or delimit what I learned from my teachers: they were the touchstones by which I began to see the world afresh.
The same is also true of all our lives of faith. Paul wrote to Timothy:
I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you. (2 Tim. 1:6)
John wrote in his first epistle:
That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:3)
We “catch” our religion from one another, and, giving thanks for our teachers in the faith, we join them in their holy fellowship, the blessed company of all faithful people. In their steps we begin scouting the territory of the kingdom of God, our prayers and praises inspiring the very stones to cry out in worship. Before long we find ourselves with students of our own, and so the kingdom grows.
We live in an age when it is fashionable to be self-taught, self-made, self-fulfilled. Meanwhile, teachers are not perfect. Miles Farrow finally suffered an alcohol-induced breakdown and died in an asylum. The fellowship of teachers and learners is a fragile one, requiring humility, sincerity, honesty, forbearance, and generosity, among other virtues.
And yet to seek the kingdom of God by any other means amounts to the sin of Lucifer, who learned the hard way that heaven cannot be stormed by any degree of personal conviction, charisma, or force of arms. So thanks be to God for all our teachers, and for all those from whom we have caught glimpses of his kingdom. Let us, in our own time, be contagious with his praise and gentle with his love, guiding others in the way that leads to eternal life.
The featured image comes via King’s College, Cambridge.