June 6, 2020

iMonk Classic: “Lo, How a Rose” – Experiencing The Power of Beauty


Note from CM: I remember reading this post as a fairly new reader to IM and feeling a strong connection to Michael and his experience. Yesterday morning, our choir sang a rendition of “Lo, How a Rose,” and my thoughts went back to the beauty of this season, the beauty of the Rose springing forth in our hearts and in the world, and the power of music to refresh our spirits and make things new.

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 “Lo, How a Rose:” Experiencing The Power of Beauty
A classic Michael Spencer article, from December 2004

It was Christmas of 1968. I was a seventh grader at Estes Junior High School. School was a huge part of my world. My father was beginning down the road to depression. I was an only child, and my life wasn’t full of the activities of a typical middle school boy today. My dad didn’t want me to play sports, so I came home every day and watched television, or played with my friends up the street. Looking back, there was a simplicity and goodness to my life, and there was also, right in the center, an emptiness.

My parents were uneducated and unsophisticated “country” people. Mom had grown up on farms in rural western Kentucky. Dad was an eastern Kentucky mountain boy who wound up making his way to the oil fields of western Kentucky where, after a painful divorce, he met and married my mother. We had a good family in many ways and a broken one in others, but it was completely devoid of anything you would call beauty; artistic beauty. There was no music. There were only a few cheap wall decorations. There were almost no books. Because I was an only child, I was treated as special, but I wasn’t introduced to the world of beauty. My parents knew the beauty of nature, but they lived in a city. They knew the beauty of family, and shared that with me. But what they knew of the beauty of music was the sound of folk music in the hollers and on the porches of farmhouses, and I was not there.

My parents did not know the world of artistic beauty. They were strangers to it, and would remain so throughout their lives. I went with dad to stock car races and with mom to Gospel quartet shows. At church, I heard the choir and sang hymns, but there was no awareness in my life of the beauty of great music; music that moved the soul and told the mind and heart of a greater beauty beyond. Every week, we would go to a friend’s home and hear a little country band play in the basement while my parents played Rook. I never knew there was anything else or anything more.

School was my only hope of an outlet from this world. It was at school a year before that I had first watched a real play; “Macbeth,” no less. I never forgot that introduction to Shakespeare and that bloody story of evil unfolding before my childish eyes. And it was at school that I first discovered the beauty of music, in “Lo! How a Rose, E’re Blooming.”

Seventh graders were required to take music class. We were not music enthusiasts, to say the least. There was about us all the sense of artistic compulsion, but in the cause of sheer endurance. Nothing more. Our teacher was Mr. Waite, the assistant principal. Mr. Waite was a towering, imposing, intense force to be reckoned with. He managed rooms full of junior high students with a firmness that produced consistent results. Fear of impending doom concentrates the mind wonderfully, and sometimes, in our case, frees the voice to do great things.

I later learned that he was, in fact, a boisterous, happy and spontaneous man who could make anyone smile, but we rarely, if ever, saw that smile. He was turning seventh grade Philistines into singers, and this was war. His entrance into our tiny music room was like the arrival of a holy prophet bound and determined to convert the captive heathen to the true faith. He did not abide any misbehavior, and we would sing whether we liked it or not. We were there to sing, and we would learn to sing and we did sing. Or else…I’m not sure what would have happened, but I didn’t want to find out.

I couldn’t read a note of music, and though Mr. Waite diligently taught us, and I surely nodded at every lesson, I never learned to actually read music. But that didn’t mean I didn’t learn to sing. I was blessed with a good voice and memory. I loved to sing with a group. If we couldn’t read the music, we could still memorize our part, and I did.

Christmas approached that seventh grade year, and we prepared for a Christmas music program for our parents. I am sure I was in the choir and sang several pieces, but I only recall one piece. Mr. Waite used a small, seventh grade boy’s choir, and among other things, we sang a classic arrangement of Lo, How a Rose E’re Blooming.”

I knew the usual Christmas Carols from church, but I had never heard this song or anything of its kind. I didn’t understand the text. I didn’t understand the scriptural references. I certainly didn’t understand the beautiful arrangement by German composer Michael Praetorius. I did know that this song was an experience of beauty that moved my young soul like no other music I’d ever heard. The mysterious moving of the notes, slipping in behind one another, created an interaction and harmony unlike anything in my hymn-singing tradition. (Think “When We All Get To Heaven” and you have my total experience.) I was captivated. I couldn’t explain what I was feeling, but it was what C.S. Lewis called “longing for joy.” Having once experienced it, we are never the same, and we are pointed toward God with our sails to the wind of joy.

Rose-in-the-Snow-397x530I remember our performance well. There was a small group of us formerly rowdy boys, all standing in white shirts, singing words from the 15th century, in almost complete ignorance, but now under Mr. Waite’s tutelage, becoming instruments of beauty despite our depravity and barbarian natures. My mother was there, and I am sure she was proud of me in my shirt, tie and cowlick, but I could never tell her, or anyone else, what I was really feeling. I didn’t have words for it myself. I couldn’t have told Mr. Waite what happened to me in those rehearsals and in that performance, but I had entered a whole new world.

I wonder how many people in my world have never been moved by music? They listen to the radio or CDs and are excited, or manipulated, but never moved by pure beauty like a visit from a spirit. How many have never been drawn into the beauty and the mystery of wondrous art like this seventh grade boy? Perhaps that day was my biggest step toward believing that God was real, good and loved me. Could the empty universe of the scientists have produced such a sound, and such a feeling to accompany it? Was this all there was, or was there more? And when this world is exhausted, is that all there is, or is there more beside? Is there what Lewis called a heaven of music and silence?

Mr. Waite, I owe you a great debt. You transformed us into the conduits of beauty, and you put the music of the gods on our lips when we were too young to know what it all meant. You rescued me from an artless world and showed me worlds beyond. You did what every educator should long to do- bring the experience of truth, beauty and wonder into young hearts and minds, and so capture us that we can never be happy again without tasting more of that miracle. You gave me a great gift, a gift that life, with all its pain and loss, will never take away. I will always have that song. And now, I have the Rose of whom the poet wrote, and the beauty that made that wonderful song beautiful is mine as well.


  1. Grandfather Trout says

    “One day Dostoevsky threw out the enigmatic remark: “Beauty will save the world”. What sort of a statement is that? For a long time I considered it mere words. How could that be possible? When in bloodthirsty history did beauty ever save anyone from anything? Ennobled, uplifted, yes – but whom has it saved?

    There is, however, a certain peculiarity in the essence of beauty, a peculiarity in the status of art: namely, the convincingness of a true work of art is completely irrefutable and it forces even an opposing heart to surrender. It is possible to compose an outwardly smooth and elegant political speech, a headstrong article, a social program, or a philosophical system on the basis of both a mistake and a lie. What is hidden, what distorted, will not immediately become obvious.

    Then a contradictory speech, article, program, a differently constructed philosophy rallies in opposition – and all just as elegant and smooth, and once again it works. Which is why such things are both trusted and mistrusted.

    It is vain to reiterate what does not reach the heart.

    But a work of art bears within itself its own verification: conceptions which are devised or stretched do not stand being portrayed in images, they all come crashing down, appear sickly and pale, convince no one. But those works of art which have scooped up the truth and presented it to us as a living force – they take hold of us, compel us, and nobody ever, not even in ages to come, will appear to refute them.

    So perhaps that ancient trinity of Truth, Goodness and Beauty is not simply an empty, faded formula as we thought in the days of our self-confident, materialistic youth? If the tops of these three trees converge, as the scholars maintained, but the too blatant, too direct stems of Truth and Goodness are crushed, cut down, not allowed through – then perhaps the fantastic, unpredictable, unexpected stems of Beauty will push through and soar to that very same place, and in so doing will fulfill the work of all three?”

    Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn The Nobel Lecture

  2. Thanks for re-posting this. A worthy sentiment worth reading again.

    I also got this from FastCompany today: http://www.fastcocreate.com/3023094/science-says-art-will-make-your-kids-better-thinkers-and-nicer-people

    • I meant to add that I found the comparison to televangelists and church to prints and art in a museum especially telling.

  3. David Cornwell says

    This post reminds me once again of the importance of teachers in our lives. I attended a small high school located in a small Ohio River town. The school was not fancy, and by today’s standards would be lacking in many things. However my English teacher in high school, Miss Keeney, was a total inspiration to me. She also attended the town Methodist Church where I grew up, so she was well known around the area.

    She had a certain class about her that demanded respect. The old fashion way she wore her hair, her class bearing and posture, and the way she conducted herself was different. I had her first for the required high school English class that taught all the rules of grammar, and then spent part of the time on a mixture of literature. This is what I took to quickly. Reading these assignments opened up an entire new world of authors, style, and imagination.

    So the next year I signed up for English Lit. I loved this class because we sampled so many of the great English authors. When I read one I liked, I would go to the library and check out an entire book by the author, and in my spare time consume it.

    I also took another class that was divided between grammar and speech, taught by Miss Keeney. She diagrammed sentences on the blackboard in a way that divided and conquered through analysis. I cannot say I loved this class, but I learned enough to get by.

    Then in speech I learned how to stand in front of a group of people, present an idea, and get them to listen. Again, I would go to the public library, exhaust a subject through research, and prepare until I knew it backward and forward. I loved it.

    Were these things art? My answer is yes, at least to a limited degree. A beauty was assigned to words, thoughts, ideas, and structure. Words have meaning, and that meaning can contain great beauty through the strength of composition, emotion, and skill.

    When I read email and Facebook posts today, and so much that passes for writing, I once again thank God for the likes of Miss Keeney. So I refuse to join the political hobby of our age– that of making teachers the scapegoat for our educational ills. She had a special beauty about her and her love for language that changed my life.

  4. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    In an age dominated by the Cult of Ugliness, you grab for beauty anywhere you can find it.

  5. From Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning”:

    “As the inner life of the prisoner tended to become more intense, he also experienced the beauty of art and nature as never before. Under their influence he sometimes even forgot his own frightful circumstances. If someone had seen our faces on the journey from Auschwitz to a Bavarian camp as we beheld the mountains of Salzburg with their summits glowing in the sunset, through the little barred windows of the prison carriage, he would never have believed that those were the faces of men who had given up all hope of life and liberty. Despite that factor — or maybe because of it — we were carried away by nature’s beauty, which we had missed for so long.”

  6. Christiane says

    Michael WAS an original . . . we will not see his like again. So very gifted . . . he brought a lot of different people together to have a healing conversation about faith.

    We look at Michael’s strong gravitation to that old hymn and at his resulting surprised feelings and some would say maybe he was an ‘old soul’ . . . well, perhaps he was. He seemed to possess a real longing for something ‘more’ than his rural evangelical world could give him..

  7. As a former school and private music teacher who has also been a Church musician all my professional life, I was moved by and very appreciative of this posting on music, the arts, and beauty. I thought it would generate a lot more comments. It was excellent. Thank you for re-posting it.

  8. Mike, thanks so much for re-running this one. I’ll never be able to sing “Lo, How a Rose” without thinking of Michael, and of this essay. This was truly a profound experience for him.