Damaged instruments

In May I had the privilege of attending a remarkable two-day conference at Holy Trinity Brompton Church in London entitled ‘The Holy Spirit in the World Today’. The line-up of presenters was mouth-watering, including Archbishop Rowan Williams and his wife Jane, together with Miroslav Volf (Yale Center for Faith and Culture) and Jürgen Moltmann, whom we had just hosted at the American Church in Paris, where he gave three extremely personal and moving ‘Reflections on the Cross’ in March. My review of the event (only scratching the surface) has just been posted on-line at http://dev.stmellitus.org/sites/stmellitus.org/files/Holy_Spirit_Conference_Review_0.pdf . Musical metaphors were many, not least at the end of a powerfully imaginative presentation by Professor David Ford (Cambridge), who finished by reading out an evocative poem entitled ‘Flight Line’ from a collection by contemporary Irish poet Micheal O’Siadhail entitled ‘Our Double Time’ (which I’ve just ordered); jazz, one of O’Siadhail’s central interests, is for Ford a metaphor for the improvisatory work of the Holy Spirit. This connection between spirituality and spontaneous musical expression is one which has fascinated me ever since I myself first began improvising at the organ and piano many years ago; last year I had some very stimulating conversation (after an equally stimulating jam session) about this with German saxophonist/composer/fellow Bonhoefferite Uwe Steinmetz, who has initiated a remarkable new late-night concert series called ‘In Spirit’ (www.in-spirit.eu) at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche in Berlin combining spiritual reflection with cutting-edge jazz. The subject of the rich theological implications of improvisation is one to which I hope to return in future posts.

Perhaps the most immediately striking thing about this Berlin City church is its architectural form, with a modernist octagonal structure standing alongside the ruins of the former church, left as a war memorial. Which leads back to the Holy Trinity Brompton conference; the most moving moment of the event from a personal point of view came on the second morning, when a time of meditative prayer was unexpectedly introduced by the fifth movement (Louange à l’éternité de Jésus for ‘cello and piano) from Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. Until this stage in the proceedings the worship at Holy Trinity Brompton had been ‘contemporary’ in the popular rather than classical sense, so this was a very welcome affirmation of the continuing relevance of Western art-music in the life of the Church. As speaker Ken Costa (Chairman of Alpha International and a former member of the Advisory Council of the London Symphony Orchestra) remarked, one of the most striking things about the work’s legendary first performance in the Stalag VIIIa POW camp in Silesia in 1941 was the fact that this ecstatic music of yearning for the eternal was first played on damaged instruments. It is difficult to imagine a more potent symbol of the ‘groaning of creation’: the encounter of divine transcendence and this-worldly brokenness in which the Spirit him/herself somehow mysteriously participates at a level deeper than that of words –

‘We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. […] We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.’ (Romans 8:22-23, 26)

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