To many of us today the meaning of success has deteriorated to power, fame and above all money. If it is true that you can, in part, judge a people by their television commercials, then it would be accurate to assume that our greatest gauge of success at this time is money. If you are rich, you are successful. We feel that if we are having a hard time financially we aren’t “making it,” and we have a compulsion not only to keep up with the Joneses but to surpass them.
Illustrating the same idea on an entirely different level, one Christmas I was deeply moved by reading about the composer George Frederick Handel. Throughout his life, Handel fought reoccurring indebtedness. At one point, he suffered from a paralyzing stroke which promised, at the age of fifty-two, to end his creative life. His spontaneous recovery from his paralysis has never been understood by doctors. Then, four years after his recovery, he wrote his famous oratorio, Messiah, finishing only twenty-three days after he started. As Handel stared at the bulky manuscript, he exclaimed, “I think that God has visited me!”
After its initial success, however, the Messiah seemingly lost its popularity. The organized church thought it was sacrilegious to speak of God from a stage rather than from the pulpit, and so the piece was effectively boycotted. Finally, after giving up on paying his debts with the piece, Handel gave it to London’s Foundling Hospital, where to this day a handwritten copy of Messiah is on display.
Handel then began leading a yearly performance of the Messiah in the hospital’s chapel. At first, people came to hear this man who was known to be the world’s greatest organist. But eventually they came to hear Messiah, until the yearly performance became the highlight of the London social season. Handel became blind in his sixties, but he continued the performances until his death at seventy-four. In the last years, when he was accompanied by children to the organ, the audience would cry in sympathy. As he began to play, they would weep out of joy.
Messiah has never stopped gaining in popularity since that day. Yet Handel never earned one penny from it. His greatest work was one which he gave away to a foundling home, and yet it marks the pinnacle of his success. Handel’s debts have long since been forgotten. But the importance of his life can be summed up, at its highest level of achievement, in one word: Messiah.
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If of thy mortal goods thou art bereft,
And from thy slender store two loaves alone to thee are left,
Sell one, and with the dole
Buy hyacinths to feed thy soul. (Abuslih-ud-Din Saadi)
– Elizabeth R. Skoglund, More Precious Than a Sparrow. Click here to purchase on Amazon.