This story was shared with me several years ago. On November 18, 1995, Itzhak Perlman, the violinist, came on stage to give a concert at the Lincoln Center in New York City. If you have ever been to a Perlman concert, you know that getting on stage was no small achievement for him. He was stricken with polio as a child and has braces on both legs and walks with the aid of two crutches. To see him walk across the stage one step at a time, painfully and slowly, is a sight. He walks with a halting, yet majestic gate until he reaches his chair. Then he sits down, puts his crutches on the floor, undoes the clasps on his legs, tucks one foot back and extends the other foot forward. Then he bends down and picks up his violin, puts it under his chin, nods to the conductor and proceeds to play. By now, the audience is used to this ritual. They sit quietly and remain reverently silent while he undoes the clasps on his legs. They wait with great expectation as he readies himself to play.
But on this night, something went wrong. Just as he finished the few bars, one of the strings on his violin broke. You could hear it snap—it went off like gunfire across the theatre. There was no mistaking what that sound meant. The audience who was there that night thought to themselves, “We figured that he would have to get up, put on the clasps again, pick up the crutches and make his way off the stage—to either get a replacement violin or else find another string for the one he had or wait for someone to bring him another violin while on stage.”
But he didn’t. Instead, he waited a moment, closed his eyes, and then signaled the conductor to begin again. The orchestra began and he played with such passion, power, and such purity, as if nothing had happened. Some reported that his performance was the best they had ever heard from him. And, of course, anyone who know about playing a symphonic work knows that it is impossible to play such a piece of music with just three strings. I know that, you know that—we all know that! But that night, Itzhak Perlman refused to know that. It was reported that you could see him modulating, changing, and recomposing the piece in his head. At one point, it sounded like he was re-tuning the strings to get new sound from them as if they had never done so before.
When he was finished, there was an awe-struck silence. And then the audience rose in an extraordinary outburst of applause from every corner of the auditorium. Everyone was on their feet, doing everything they could to show how much they appreciated what he had just accomplished. He smiled, wiped the sweat from his brow, raised his bow to quiet the audience, and then said, not boastfully, but in a quiet pensive, reverent tone, “You know, sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music one can still make with what you have left.”
As I reflect on that story, I’m again struck with what a powerful thought that is. And who knows? Perhaps that is the way of life—not just for an artist, but for all of us. Here is a man who has prepared all his life to make music on an instrument with four strings, who suddenly in the middle of a concert, finds himself with only three strings, and the music he made that night with what he had left was more sacred, more beautiful, more memorable, than any he had ever made before.
So, perhaps our task, during this season of Lent, is to find the music of our souls with what we have left. In this shaky, fast-paced, changing, bewildering time in history can we “make music”, first with all that we have, and then, when that is no long possible, to make music, as it were, with what we have left. What might that look like? Not knowing your circumstance, that is hard to gage, but it certainly is something to consider: are there relationships, issues, situations is which you have previously been able to work with or engage that were simpler because you knew that you had the necessary means or methods to deal with them—and in a moment, without notice, those tools failed to give you what you needed? Are you having to adjust, rebalance, or temper your responses to life and relationships around you? Are you having to adapt or adjust to a certain set of circumstances or to a certain listener who is different than they were before? In that case, it seems that Perlman’s reflection is apropos. And to add some weight to it, how is it that our faith in God help us with our place in this life help us, also. Are you finding ways to allow the strength of that faith to guide you when it seems there are only three strings to play within the array of bewildering circumstances?
The Psalmist writes these words while reflecting in a penitential mood perhaps when he or she found that he had only three strings to play his tune:
Let my cry come before you, O Lord, give me understanding according to your word!
Let my plea come before you; deliver me according to your word.
My lips will pour forth praise, for you teach me your statutes.
My tongue will sing of your word, for all your commandments are right.
Let your hand be ready to help me, for I have chosen your precepts.
I long for your salvation, O LORD, and your law is my delight.
Let my soul live and praise you… (Psalm 11: 171 to 177b)
A blessed Lent to you.