They’re called “keynotes.”
A keynote speech is a talk or presentation that establishes a main underlying theme. It sets up the framework for a program of events that will follow, summarizing the core message or the most important revelation. The term itself comes from the practice of a cappella music: doo-wop or barbershop singers played a note before singing to determine the key in which the song would be performed.
Gabrielle Bossis, writing in the spiritual journal that would become the classic He and I, uses the term keynote as well, but for her it means something completely different. At the beginning of each new year, as she continued her inner dialogue with Jesus, Gabrielle Bossis was given a “keynote,” or a thought for the year.
In 1937, for example, at the very start of the journals, she heard, “Here is your keynote for the year: purely and simply.” What a way to start not only a new year, but a new adventure! Imagine for a moment what it would be like to put away the goals and resolutions that we make every January 1st, and replace them instead with a keynote for the year! And imagine if that keynote could be “purely and simply.” Like the a cappella singers, we’d start out in that key—and we’d then strive to live out the whole year in that key. Purely and simply. If we could keep those words at the forefront of our minds, how would it affect the choices and decisions we’d make? How would it influence how we interact with family, friends, coworkers? How would it color our every endeavor, our every thought, our every breath? It’s hard to think that it wouldn’t!
In 1941, Gabrielle received this: “Believe in love. Have faith in my love.” To really understand the significance of this keynote, it’s critical to put it in context. Gabrielle lived in a port city on the west coast of France. During the year that led up to the January of this keynote, Germany invaded her country and she watched as neighboring cities Boulogne-sur-Mer and Calais surrendered. Operation Dynamo evacuated 340,000 troops from Dunkirk, just up the coast. And with the summer had come the worst news of all, France’s surrender to Germany: the end of the war, the beginning of life under the Occupation. It’s hard to imagine anything that could bring one’s spirits lower than those events; and yet here, at the beginning of 1941, she is offered a promise: Believe in love. Have faith in my love. What an extraordinary keynote to be able to hold onto in a time of war! In this her faith is echoing the words of Fyodor Dostoyevsky: “At some thoughts,” he writes, “one stands perplexed, above all at the sight of human sin, and wonders whether to combat it by force or by humble love. Always decide, "I will combat it by humble love.'"
1944 was a year that began uncertainly. It would eventually bring about France’s liberation by Allied troops, but that was unclear in January and it would be easy to forgive Gabrielle any anxiety she might be feeling. Her keynote was for 1944 was simple: “Trust in me.” Imagine your house having been bombed (as hers was), scant food to eat, uniformed soldiers on every street of your beloved city, supplies running out, priests and nuns taken away to die in camps… and then that simple message: Trust in me. And she did, listening to Jesus’ voice and responding: “Lord, what good things you have lavished upon me! What can I ever do to thank you?” That is an amazing trust: to see the evil around her and to respond with gratitude for what God has done. Who among us would have that kind of faith? Within the year, France would be liberated by Allied troops, but long before there were any boots of the ground on the beaches to the north of her, Gabrielle was trusting and praising her God.
What message is there for us in these simple keynotes, delivered to a layperson in a time of war? It’s not that difficult to imagine giving up all hope, all trust, even all faith. Yet God seemed to be taking Gabrielle by the hand and leading her safely through the uncertainty and the terror and the sense of doom that had befallen all of her country. In another time and in another country, we too face large overwhelming frightening issues… and we, too, can take comfort in these keynotes. Purely and simply. Believe in love, have faith in my love. Trust in me.
They are words to live by. So perhaps this year we can put away our self-absorbed resolutions to lose weight or get a promotion or open a savings account, and instead turn to keynotes that will bring us closer to God.
What is your keynote for the year?