Adam’s continued lament – a point of conversion?

As we enter 2011, there can be little doubt that the need for genuine progress in Christian-Islamic relations is going to be as pressing an issue as it was in 2010. This was made painfully obvious in Egypt only a few days ago with the devastating attack on the Two Saints Coptic Church in Alexandria as the faithful were seeing  in the New Year in worship. Searching for signs of hope at what is a particularly bleak time for Christians (as well as many Muslims and Jews) in the Middle East, I find myself asking whether sacred art can possibly have anything to offer in terms of glimpses of much-needed reconciliation between faith traditions. I am not so naïve as to believe that art will deter fundamentalists of all religious stripes from treading the path of violence, but I am naïve enough to persist in the conviction that inter-faith artistic collaboration can make a limited yet nonetheless significant symbolic impact in situations of conflict by pointing to another, more harmonious reality.

In this regard, one piece that I am particularly hoping to hear in 2011 is Arvo Pärt’s new work Adam’s Lament, which was premièred at the Istanbul International Music Festival last summer, and of which I have heard a few tantalizing clips via an Estonian TV broadcast which can be accessed at http://etv.err.ee/arhiiv.php?id=109556%29 (if your Estonian is as non-existent as mine, be patient – at least half of the 25-minute documentary is in English, including Pärt’s interaction with the orchestra). If there are any French-language readers out there you may have already seen some references to Adam’s Lament in the text of the pre-concert talk I gave at the Châtelet in Paris in November prior to the first French performance of Pärt’s Symphony n.4, but if not, I would like to emphasize that the significance of this work lies not only in the music but Pärt’s concern for inter-faith dialogue and reconciliation.

Back in 1997 in an interview for the Berliner Zeitung, Pärt expressed his interest in Islamic music and the roots it shares with plainchant:

‘The song of the muezzin leaves me completely speechless. I absolutely want to understand this music. It gives me a glimpse of what ought to come, a mixture of all these phenomena from Gregorian to Islamic music. It is not their ethnicity which they have in common, but their religious coloration.’ [1]

Pärt’s first step in the direction of this musical meeting of East and West was the short but strikingly original piece Orient & Occident (which featured on the Châtelet programme). This uses the Credo as its textual basis, indicating that the composer’s prime concern in the piece was to use ‘ecumenical’ material common to the Western and Eastern branches of Christianity, but Orient & Occident is characterized musically by the prominent use of glissandi and melodic arabesques suggesting broader horizons not limited to the Christendom.

Cathedral of Peace

Adam’s Lament continues this trajectory, responding to a joint commission from festivals in Tallinn and the symbolically-charged city (particularly for an Eastern Orthodox Christian such as Pärt) of Istanbul, European Cultural Capitals for 2011 and 2010 respectively.  The location for the first performance could not have been more densely laden with history – the Hagia Eirene (‘Holy Peace’) Cathedral in Istanbul. The Hagia Eriene, whose founding is sometimes attributed to Constantine, was considered the most important church in Constantinople until the completion of its larger and more famous sister church the Hagia Sophia in 537;  destroyed three times, its present form dates from the 8th century when it was rebuilt after an earthquake. Unlike the Hagia Sophia, it was not converted into a mosque after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. It did however stand next to the barracks of the Janissaries in the outer courtyard of the Topkapi, served as an arsenal and was transformed into a museum in the nineteenth century; for 38 years it has been one of the main venues of the Istanbul Music Festival.

Hagia Eirene Cathedral, Constantinople/Istanbul

Adam, father of all mankind

It is evident that Pärt’s idea in choosing the theme of Adam, the common father of humanity, was to find a theme around which Christians and Muslims could unite in this city at the interface of Europe and Asia where the two religious communities have shared an at times extremely painful and rancorous history. This was emblematized in the performing forces, Estonia’s Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Vox Clamantis vocal ensemble under conductor Tonu Kaljuste joining Istanbul’s Borusan Philharmonic Orchestra. Pärt’s text (sung in Russian) is drawn from the writings of Saint Silouan of Mount Athos, whose disciple Archimandrite Sophrony Pärt knew personally, considering him a spiritual mentor:

‘Adam, father of all mankind, in paradise knew the sweetness of the love of God; and so when for his sin he was driven forth from the garden of Eden, and was widowed of the love of God, he suffered grievously and lamented with a mighty moan. And the whole desert rang with his lamentations. His soul was racked as he thought: ‘I have grieved my beloved Lord.’
He sorrowed less after paradise and the beauty thereof – he sorrowed that he was bereft of the love of God, which insatiably, at every instant, draws the soul to Him…’ [2]

Like much of Pärt’s music, Adam’s Lament is marked by a tone of lamentation (in the Estonian TV documentary, you can see Tonu Kaljuste pointing out parallels with Bach’s St Matthew Passion for the benefit of the orchestra). Commenting at a press conference on Adam as a universal figure, the composer remarked that ‘his name carries our human history and at the same represents each one of us. He marked the tragedy of mankind: by committing a sin, he lost the love of God. And he is still suffering.'[3] Pärt’s ecumenical vision is compassionate, but not sentimental about our common human condition; if we are all united by the fact of being created in the Divine Image, we are also united in our sinfulness and need of grace.

As we had lunch together with the management of the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris the day before the concert at the Châtelet, I had the chance to question Pärt about the first performance of Adam’s Lament. He told me with some emotion that the most special moment for him came during a rehearsal when the sound of his music mingled with the call of the muezzin to prayer entering the Cathedral from outside. It was clear that this constituted the fulfillment of his wish of 1997 as well as being a potent symbol of the reconciliation that he considers so important.

Patriarch Bartholomew with President Barack Obama, Istanbul 2009

The Patriarch and the Ahtiname

Pärt also mentioned that he had been received by His All Holiness Bartholomew I, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, a figure who has for some time been one of my personal heroes for his genuine heart for reconciliation between the Christian churches, pioneering work in emphasizing the spiritual importance of ecological issues and commitment to constructive dialogue between world faiths. Perhaps more than any recent religious leader I can think of – except perhaps Brother Roger of Taizé – the self-effacing  Patriarch has been a living example of how a deeply contemplative spirituality is not opposed to vigorous social engagement but rather grounds it in God’s own being (Bartholomew quotes the daring dictum of the nineteenth-century Russian Nicholas Fedorov that ‘the dogma of the Trinity is our social program’). During his twenty years as Patriarch he has consistently issued strongly-worded and unambiguous statements on the imperative of religious tolerance grounded in the belief that ‘all human beings – regardless of religion, race, national origin, color, creed, or gender – are living icons of God’.[4] In 1995 he for example asserted that

”there has never been a greater need for spiritual leaders to engage themselves in the affairs of this world. We must take a visible place on the stage, especially because too many crimes today are taking place in the name of faith […] religious extremists and terrorists may be the most false prophets of all, for not only do they commit horrible crimes against humanity – they do so in the name of a lie’ [5]

While watching a recent CBS 60 minutes broadcast focusing on Patriarch Bartholomew (and particularly on the difficulties of the dwindling Orthodox community in Turkey and its often problematic relations with the authorities in Ankara), I was very struck by a sequence in which CBS correspondent Bob Simon visited the famous St Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mt Sinai. He had been sent by the Patriarch to look at the extraordinary library of what is the oldest functioning monastery in the world, but not, as I had imagined, in order to be shown its peerless collection of ancient Christian manuscripts and icons. Instead, Patriarch Bartholomew wanted him to see an equally remarkable document written by Mohammed (pbuh) known as the Ahtiname, personally granting the rights of the monastery, sealed with a representation of his own hand.

Mohammed's Letter of Protection

The text (which can be found at the Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies site http://www.islamic-study.org/saint_catherine_monastery.htm ) of this charter is well worth pondering:

“This is a message from Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them. Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by Allah! I hold out against anything that displeases them.

No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries. No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims’ houses. Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God’s covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate. No one is to force them to travel or to oblige them to fight. The Muslims are to fight for them.

If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it is not to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray. Their churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants. No one of the nation (Muslims) is to disobey the covenant till the Last Day (end of the world).”

I hardly need to emphasize the tragic irony in the dichotomy between this original document and events such as the  attack against the Coptic Church in Alexandria and all other violations of the spirit in which which Muhammed’s (pbuh) Letter of Protection is written.  What we must deal with is not so much an Islamic problem as a human one; it seems that we are still not free of the sin not only of Adam, but also of Cain.  As Saint Silouan expresses it in his poem:

‘Adam knew great grief when he was banished from paradise,
but when he saw his son Abel slain by Cain his brother,
Adam’s grief was even heavier.
His soul was heavy, and he lamented and thought:
‘Peoples and nations will descend from me, and multiply,
and suffering will be their lot, and they will live in enmity
and seek to slay one another.’
And his sorrow stretched wide as the sea …’ [6]

Arvo Pärt receives lifetime achievement award from Abdullah Gül

A point of conversion?

Perhaps not surprisingly, some reviewers of Adam’s Lament have been made to feel uncomfortable by the heaviness conveyed by Pärt’s work. And yet there is a profound message of hope here in the circumstances of the piece’s first performance and the sight of Abdullah Gül, president of a country where Muslims constitute 99% of the population, making a lifetime award to the leading Christian composer of our time. For Pärt, Adam is not only the father of humanity, but also – and perhaps more importantly, a ‘point of conversion’. [7] It seems evident that he is not here using the word ‘conversion’ to refer to a change of creedal allegiance, but rather to genuine repentance of the heart in response to the convicting voice of the Holy Spirit working through the human conscience.

In this context it is perhaps worth recalling another landmark event held in the Hagia Eirene, one of which Pärt and Patriarch Bartholomew must surely have been acutely aware on the day of the first performance of Adam’s Lament:  the Second Ecumenical Council of 381, whose work, in addition to that of the Council of Nicaea in 325, provided the creed still recited today by millions of Christians worldwide. The particular contribution of the Second Council was in the area of the theology of the Holy Spirit, including the powerful affirmation that the Spirit is ‘the Lord, the giver of life’.[8] Despite all appearances to the contrary, for those who truly believe in and are committed to sharing the work of the Paraclete today to bring about reconciliation where it appears impossible, human enmity can never be the final word over and against the life given by the Spirit. For, as Saint Silouan writes, ‘God is love insaturable. Love impossible to describe.’ [9]

BBC Radio 3’s Music Matters on January 15 will feature Arvo Pärt in conversation with Tom Service in Tallinn (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00xbf9c).

_________________________

[1] Interview with Klaus Goerg Koch et Michael Monninger, ‘Klangwelten der Langsamkeit und Stille’, Berliner Zeitung, March 1/2, 1997.
[2] Excerpt. Source: http://www.arvopart.ee
[3] Quoted at http://www.tallinn2011.ee/newsletter/x3pwzt:180
[4] “Ecumenical Patriarch Issues Statement for U.N. Conference,” The Orthodox Observer, July-August, 2001.
[5] Speech to the Istanbul Ministry ‘Fundamentalism and Faith in the New Millenium: a View from the Crossroads between East and West’, October 25, 1995.
[6] In Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov), Saint Silouan the Athionite (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1991), 449.
[7] “I had one criterion while composing this piece, which was for it to appeal to Turkish culture. There is something that ties us all together. And in my mind, it was the father of all mankind, Adam himself. I abstractly define Adam as a point of conversion.” (Time Out Istanbul in English, available on-line at http://www.timeoutistanbul.com/english/7000/2010_is_over_or_is_it_part_ii)
[8] Archimandrite Sophrony, Saint Silouan the Athionite, 450.
[9] For a densely technical but typically penetrating study of the development of the theology of the Holy Spirit in the Second Ecumenical Council, see John Zizioulas, ‘Pneumatology and the Importance of the Person’ in Communion and Otherness: Further Studies in Personhood and the Church (London: Continuum, 2006), 178-204. Often considered the most brilliant Orthodox theologian of modern times, Zizioulas (Metropolitan John of Pergamon) is also one of Patriarch Bartholomew’s principal collaborators in environmental initiatives and in the field of ecumenical dialogue.

“This is a message from Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them. Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by Allah! I hold out against anything that displeases them.

No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries. No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims’ houses. Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God’s covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate. No one is to force them to travel or to oblige them to fight. The Muslims are to fight for them.

If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it is not to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray. Their churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants. No one of the nation (Muslims) is to disobey the covenant till the Last Day (end of the world).”

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2 thoughts on “Adam’s continued lament – a point of conversion?

  1. Poignant and pervaded by the longing for restoration:
    Perhaps the Ahtiname might become part of the text for a commission? Along with David Hart’s understanding (as he concludes The Beauty of the Infinite) of the Cross as the act of hospitality in the very place of rejection?

  2. As always, I a humbled and amazed at Mr Bannister’s depth of insight and wisdom. I resolve to make it one of my priorities as a Christian leader this year to learn more about Islam and promote mutual understanding and peace between Christians and Muslims. Thank you, Peter!

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