STJ#1003, Where Do We Come From?

Throughout this practice, I’ve happened upon many hymns that were inspired by (or were outright settings of) poetry; that makes sense, as lyric forms seek out one another naturally. But this is the first time I’ve encountered one inspired by paintings.

As noted on the UUA’s Song Information page,

The lyrics of this song come from the French title of a famous oil painting by Paul Gauguin created in Tahiti in 1897 and 1898. It is currently housed at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, MA. The three groups of women, read from the right to left, represent the three questions posed in the title of the painting. The women with the child represent the beginning of life “Where Do We Come From?” The middle group, represent the daily existence of adulthood “What Are We?” The old woman facing death is asking, “Where Are We Going?”

Wow.

It’s an amazing painting; the photo I’ve used here doesn’t do it justice, I’m sure. (When am I in Boston next? I have some art to look at…) It is haunting and asks for a meditative encounter, not a quick glance and go. It’s deceptively intricate in its simplicity, and it sticks with you.

Much like this song, which can be sung as a canon, a round, a chant, with about as many permutations as you can imagine. It embodies the questions and mood of the painting in haunting and meditative countermelodies.

 Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

Where do we come from?

Mystery. Mystery. Life is a riddle and a mystery.

Where do we come from? Where are we going?

And these are questions I’m asking myself a lot lately. As I facilitate a couple of UU Wellspring groups, I have the opportunity to both be present to myself and look back at the pre-seminary me who took this for the first time. The questions I had then aren’t the questions I have now, but I still seek answers as I look to where I have come from. And then more generally, where do we come from and what does it mean to dwell in such a time as this, wondering where we are going and how to be present in those riddles.

This is a small song, taking up only half a page.

But it is actually one of our biggest.

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