Quanto costa una preghiera? (What price a prayer?)

Well, I have to hand it to him. A real Italian pro at work. He slipped in, waited, selected his victim, checked that nobody was looking, then struck. Even though the closed circuit cameras caught sight of him as he took the bag, they didn’t catch his face as he disappeared through the back exit. A perfect crime.

Diocletian baths, now walls of the Santa Maria degli Angeli Basilica. Photo: Giovanni dall'Orto

Diocletian baths, now walls of the Santa Maria degli Angeli Basilica. Photo: Giovanni dall’Orto

An all-too-familiar story in Rome, of course, the sort of thing the guidebooks warn you about (the specialità romana being Vespa-riding thieves seizing handbags at intersections). Unfortunately for me, I was the unsuspecting victim, and in a surprising location – the beautiful Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli located a stone’s throw from Opera Roma. I had strolled in having a few minutes to spare before catching my bus out to the airport, intrigued by its architectural origins as part of the huge Diocletian complex of baths, once the largest building of its type in the Roman world. Once inside, I sat down to pray, ruminating among other things upon the whole complex relationship between the Roman Empire and Christianity. When I opened my eyes, my baggage only two inches away from me was gone (including my plane ticket and a computer with six years’ worth of files, though thankfully not my passport or credit card). As I remarked to the very helpful parish priest who watched the CCTV video with me to no avail, that was a pretty expensive prayer! But then again… the second before the thief made his getaway I had been thinking about the scourging of Jesus at the hands of Rome, and as I left the church for the bus, I imagined a voice saying: ‘they stripped me of everything, you know…’ So no point in complaining about a few lost electronic gadgets, although I would advise anyone headed for the Basilica Santa Maria degli Angeli (well-known to the local Carabinieri , it turns out) either to pray with their eyes open or else chain themselves to their valuables!

Basilica_santa_maria_degli_angeli_dei_martyt_2011_4It was an inauspicious end to what had nonetheless been a memorable day in the Eternal City. In the morning, I had joined a crowd of some 50,000+ in a pleasantly dry St Peter’s Square for Pope Francis’s General Audience, and I have to say that the atmosphere was electric. Somehow I have always found the Piazza when full a more moving sight than St Peter’s Basilica itself (excluding Michelangelo’s Pietà), perhaps because of the collective energy, the sensum fidelium represented by the massed pilgrims from around the whole world. On this occasion what impressed me was the sense of anticipation, the feeling as Pope Francis arrived and began to ride around the square to the delight of the crowd that this was not simply ‘business as usual’, but that something important was actually happening.  It is difficult to identify any one factor behind the buzz in St Peter’s Square: the Pope’s spontaneous manner and proximity to the crowds, the limpidity of his uncomplicated yet profound teaching, his roots in the Global South where the demographic centre of gravity of world Christianity is now located, the heartfelt longing of so many ordinary believers for the Church’s return to the simplicity of the Apostolic Age… all these contributed to creating an unforgettable event. The closest parallel in my own experience is probably the annual European Meetings of the Taizé Community that I attended some two decades ago in the years around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, when there was a similar feeling among the crowds of being caught up in ‘history in the making’, that we were participating in something radically new , the Divine novum which cannot simply be extrapolated out of the past.

St Peter's square RomeThe same can be said of the ‘concert for peace’ at the Auditorium Conciliazione (formerly home to the Accademia di Santa Cecilia’s symphony concerts) the evening before, where Russian soprano Svetlana Kasyan certainly lived up to her billing  as a major talent. Although I tend to be wary of published comparisons of any artist with Maria Callas or any of the legends of the past, I have to say that in my years spent coaching lyric artists at the Opéra Bastille in Paris and elsewhere, I have rarely heard someone as young as Ms Kasyan capable of such vocal power (even if at times the usual problems of balance between even the most accomplished soloist and an onstage orchestra performing music written for an opera pit were in evidence). Her performance of arias by Verdi, Puccini and Catalani, delivered in a refreshingly unaffected and unpretentious manner, left no doubt as to her formidable expressive capabilities.

A no less remarkable feature of the concert, however, was the music and presence of Russian Orthodox bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, highlights being Svetlana Kasyan’s rendition of the plaintive Rachel’s Lament from his Christmas Oratorio (which also provided the evening’s encore) and a sombre, brooding song-cycle to texts by Federico Garcia Lorca. It might be argued that the setting – a hall whose heavy, uninspiring stage décor reminded me somewhat of the Salle Olivier Messiaen in Radio France – was not optimal for the more meditative moments of Metropolitan Hilarion’s music, and Italian orchestras such as the Rome Sinfonietta perhaps need an extra ounce of gravitas to convey its imposing solemnity. Yet this did nothing to diminish the success of the evening, and it would be hard to overestimate the symbolic significance of an event in which the bishop-composer found himself seated between Catholic Cardinals Gianfranco Ravasi (President of the Pontifical Council of Culture) and Kurt Koch (President of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity), an intriguing additional ecumenical factor being the saturation of references in Bishop Hilarion’s works to the greatest ever Protestant musician – J.S. Bach. Here too, this was not merely a concert but a happening oriented not so much to the past as to a future of unprecedented conversations between Christian traditions that lies tantalizingly open. That it should have taken place in an auditorium on the Via della Conciliazione (the ‘Way of Reconciliation’) is surely more than a coincidence.

In the back of my mind as I walking back after the concert across an empty, moonlit St Peter’s Square and now as I write these words was the spiritual vision of one of the greatest modern pioneers of Christian Unity, Frère Roger of Taizé (1915-2005). Last December the ‘Pilgrimage of Trust’ organized by the Taizé Community filled the square in order to pray with Benedict XVI, from whose hand this Swiss Reformed pastor personally received communion in the last months of his life. Frère Roger’s overwhelming conviction was that the way forward for the Church lay in re-unifying the riches of the three Christian traditions within the one undivided Body of Christ- the Eucharist, devotion to the Mother of God and the role of the Pope as a visible universal pastor in Catholicism, the liturgical depth and connection with ancient Christian tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy,  the passion for the Scriptures of his own Protestant upbringing.  If there was much excitement around the time of the Second Vatican Council (at which he was an observer) that this vision might one day be realized, it has to be said that in recent decades it has seemed to have suffered a certain loss of impetus. But on the strength of my few days’ observation of goings-on in Rome, the time is ripe for its resurgence.

What price a prayer? Yes, my brief to the Italian capital turned out to be more expensive than anticipated, thanks largely to my brush with the professional services of the Roman branch of Organized Crime Inc. But a prayer for unity, in echo of the words of Jesus himself in John 17, is worth every last Euro. And if the thief happens to be reading this blog, in the bag you stole is a CD of Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev’s St Matthew Passion given to me by the composer himself. Go ahead and take a listen – you might just learn something.

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You can read Svetlana Kasyan’s own reflections on her meeting with Pope Francis in the latest instalment of the ‘Moynihan Letters’ here

Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev)

Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev)

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Salus populi romani

It’s raining in Rome. The peculiarly melancholic quality of Italian rain (caught unforgettably in Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Nostalghia) is something which I have experienced on at least two previous damp visits to the Peninsula. The first was when I played a recital in the Pollini Auditorium in Padova and then spent a murkily atmospheric weekend with friends in a half-submerged Venice. The other was a trip to play at the ‘Marzorganistico’ festival in Noale, an occasion of which I have two principal memories; the first was being taken by my hosts to a restaurant after my first rehearsal and trying not to laugh when they admonished the chef in all seriousness that I needed an ‘intense meal’. The second was a watery car journey back to the airport marked by some fairly laconic conversation along the lines of ‘E bella l’Italia’[several seconds’ silence] ‘anche quando c’è la pioggia’ [nodding of heads: one of the joys of Italian is the unparalleled opportunities it offers even those of limited vocabulary such as myself to express a great deal by means of intonation and gestures].

The 'salus populi romani' icon, Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

Cappella Paolina, Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

By way of preparation for tonight’s ‘concert for peace’ at the Auditorium Conciliazione I decided to follow an intriguing trail laid by concert co-organizer Robert Moynihan in his biography of Pope Francis, Pray with me (written in the two weeks after his election, which is no mean a literary feat). One of the first surprises of what is turning out to be a Papacy based on the principle of ‘expect the unexpected’ was the Pope’s visit to the Cappella Paolina in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore on the morning after he first appeared on the balcony in front of the cheering crowds. He went there to pray before the icon known as Salus populi romani (‘Safeguard of the Roman people’); I had been to the Basilica on a previous visit to the Italian capital a few years ago, but had somehow missed the icon, so I decided to go and investigate. What particularly interested me was its alleged paleo-Christian roots – like those of the Basilica itself, which are evident in its fifth-century architectural layout despite the ornate decoration of later periods -, of which I would not necessarily have been aware had I not read Pray with me. 

Basically, legend has it that the icon of Christ and his mother was painted by none other than St Luke on the top of a table made by Jesus himself, one of the handful of personal belongings that Mary took with her when going to live with the Beloved Disciple after Jesus’s Ascension. Not only this, but as Luke was painting she related the narrative that we have as Luke’s Gospel record of Jesus’s birth. Now this is of course an extraordinary claim, and one downplayed by the official description in the Basilica itself (the scholarly consensus dates the icon to the sixth or seventh century). But whatever the icon’s actual provenance, it is historically certain that the idea was already established relatively early in Christian history of Luke the painter, entrusted by the apostolic community with doing the documentary work of a photographer today – albeit working with a radically different concept of visual ‘realism’ – in preserving the earliest traditions about Jesus and the events of his life.

Think what you may about all this. For my part, the story is one that fires my imagination, not least because of the questions that this ancient narrative poses to modern New Testament scholarship. Contrary to scriptural interpretations built on principles of ‘form’ and ‘redaction’ criticism which basically see the Gospels as layered embellishments upon a foundation that is difficult if not impossible to establish, the evidence of tradition is that the Church as it evolved in continuity with the Apostolic and post-Apostolic eras clearly took a very different position from modern scholars. For Christians of the first millenium, that the Gospels were eyewitness testimony was beyond dispute.

Bauckham Eyewitnesses cover

To stress the rootedness of the Gospels in historical events may be unfashionable thing in many academic theological circles today, but it is currently making something of a comeback in the Anglo-Saxon world. This is due not least to the ground-breaking work of Richard Bauckham, whose recent Jesus and the Eyewitnesses sets out the case (which I personally find compelling) that the literary techniques employed in the Fourth Gospel, when compared to other sources of the period, hint at its origins in testimony of those who actually encountered Jesus and his disciples. If this is true for the Gospel of John – leaving aside the vexed question of just which John or Johannine community may be the Gospel’s primary author – then surely the question also arises for Luke, especially given the explicit claim at the outset of the Gospel:

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilledamong us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

It is perhaps worth bearing in mind that Luke, being a physician, was a man of science acquainted with interfacing with the world of events, phenomena (a major focus of the Acts of the Apostles, a work which is if anything harder for the form critics to deconstruct than the Gospels, given that the gap between the events related and their literary narration is smaller), not just texts. Somehow I imagine him today doing dissection duty in the medical academy rather than doing seminars on literary theory. So the notion that the infancy narratives in his Gospel are essentially the editor’s free improvisation on apocryphal traditions seems hard to square with the methodology set out in his words to Theophilus. This is not to say that there is no theological program at work here, of course, but acknowledging this is quite different from saying that this theological program generated the material of the Gospels irrespective of the reality of the events in question.

In relation to Luke’s infancy narratives, the question of their origin is essentially one of deductive logic. Given that they were almost certainly written down at a time when two of the protagonists of the events concerning the Holy Family (Jesus and Joseph) were no longer on earth, who could the source have been for the account of, say, the Annunciation? Unless you wish to indulge in some complex intellectual gymnastics to explain away Luke’s claim that his ‘orderly account’ is grounded in ‘testimony of handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word’, that leaves only one possibility: Jesus’s mother. As the great French Mariologist René Laurentin points out, writing 30 years ago very much against the historico-critical tide, this does not at all mean that the Gospels are not also the product of the Christian community’s reflection – we are not dealing with ‘nothing but the facts’, as a basic principle of hermeneutics is that there is no such thing as uninterpreted data. It is nonetheless reflection on lived experience, the two components existing in a ‘both-and’, not an ‘either-or’ relationship, as indeed Luke’s Gospel tells us itself if we read attentively – Laurentin’s contention is that what we have is the ponderings of Mary’s heart on the remarkable doings of God:

‘Is acknowledging the fundamental role of realistic reference to the Christ of history to devalue the role of the Holy Spirit?’ in guiding the interpretation of the believing community, Laurentin asks? ‘Not at all. It is this community which has become conscious of Christ, expressing him in its prayer and in the Eucharist. It is within this community and for this community that the Gospels were written, that their authors informed themselves, that they sought to understand this event – as brief as it is disturbing – and to make it understood. Mary pondered in her heart (Luke 2,19 and 51) what she had experienced concretely.’[1]

René Laurentin

René Laurentin

So did Luke write down what he heard from the Mother of God Incarnate while painting on the table made by Jesus? I have no idea, just as I have no idea what historical relationship the icon in Santa Maria Maggiore bears to the events of the first century C.E. But could there have been such a conversation, and such a table? I don’t see any convincing arguments to the contrary.

'Salus populi romani'

‘Salus populi romani’

The rain continued unabated as I came out of the Basilica and made my way back across Rome, pausing only to ask a Swiss Guard by St Peter’s for a ticket to Pope Francis’s General Audience tomorrow. Now that the extraordinary images of the Pope embracing a man suffering from terrible facial disfigurement at last week’s G.A. have gone viral on the internet, I’m anticipating a large crowd in the square in the morning. I’ll be packing my umbrella. Salus populi romani.

[1] René Laurentin, ‘Vérité des Evangiles de l’Enfance’ in Nouvelle Revue Théologique, 1984, 691-710:697. Translation and emphasis mine.

Opera seria in Rome?

Much virtual ink has been spilled over what must be one of the most-dissected interviews of recent months, the three-part conversation of Pope Francis with Antonio Spadaro, S.J. published in La Civiltà Cattolica and translated in outlets such as America Magazine at the end of September. It is regrettable, if sadly understandable given social media’s unfortunate tendency to diminish everything to soundbites that this wide-ranging 12,000-word dialogue has largely been reduced to a few albeit compelling sentences about questions of sexual ethics and the need for a re-appraisal of the role of women in the Church. The conversations with Spadaro are remarkable for their profusion of ideas, even if they surface at a rate such as to leave the reader a little breathless. Moreover, the Pope’s strikingly original turns of phrase are accompanied by a wealth of references pointing not only to the anchoring of his profound spirituality in a breadth of tradition but also – and this has perhaps come as a surprise to some – his formidable intellect and cultural awareness.Pope Francis soccer pennant

For example, if it has for some months now been public knowledge that the Pope, very much a man of the Argentinian people, is a long-time supporter of the San Lorenzo soccer team in Buenos Aires and a lover of tango, it is perhaps not so widely acknowledged that he is also no less a connoisseur of classical music than his predecessor:

Among musicians I love Mozart, of course. The ‘Et incarnatus est’ from his Mass in C minor is matchless; it lifts you to God! I love Mozart performed by Clara Haskil. Mozart fulfills me. But I cannot think about his music; I have to listen to it. I like listening to Beethoven, but in a Promethean way, and the most Promethean interpreter for me is Furtwängler. And then Bach’s Passions. The piece by Bach that I love so much is the ‘Erbarme Dich,’ the tears of Peter in the ‘St. Matthew Passion.’ Sublime. Then, at a different level, not intimate in the same way, I love Wagner. I like to listen to him, but not all the time. The performance of Wagner’s ‘Ring’ by Furtwängler at La Scala in Milan in 1950 is for me the best. But also the ‘Parsifal’ by Knappertsbusch in 1962.

It ought to be unsurprising that opera holds a special place in the Pope’s musical affections given his Italian parentage (in his preference for Furtwängler’s La Scala recordings the reader may detect a note of patriotism which is prepared to indulge the approximations of the Milanese pit orchestra!). What is striking, however, is the way in which he is unafraid to use examples from the secular operatic repertoire to make spiritual points, as if to emphasize that the whole of human culture is in some way a possible locus of the sacred (or at least not sealed off from it). Jorge Maria Bergoglio is an opera buff who hears in Puccini’s Turandot much more than Nessun dorma, bringing the famous (and electrifying) scena degli enigmi exchange between Turandot and Calaf into conversation with the New Testament’s view of hope:

[Spadaro]I ask: “Do we have to be optimistic? What are the signs of hope in today’s world? How can I be optimistic in a world in crisis?”

[Pope Francis]“I do not like to use the word optimism because that is about a psychological attitude,” the pope says. “I like to use the word hope instead, according to what we read in the Letter to the Hebrews, Chapter 11, that I mentioned before. The fathers of the faith kept walking, facing difficulties. And hope does not disappoint, as we read in the Letter to the Romans. Think instead of the first riddle of Puccini’s opera ‘Turandot,’” the pope suggests.

[Spadaro]At that moment I recalled more or less by heart the verses of the riddle of the princess in that opera, to which the solution is hope: “In the gloomy night flies an iridescent ghost./ It rises and opens its wings/ on the infinite black humanity./ The whole world invokes it/ and the whole world implores it./ But the ghost disappears with the dawn/ to be reborn in the heart./ And every night it is born/ and every day it dies!” These are verses that reveal the desire for a hope. Yet here that hope is an iridescent ghost that disappears with the dawn.

“See,” says Pope Francis, “Christian hope is not a ghost and it does not deceive. It is a theological virtue and therefore, ultimately, a gift from God that cannot be reduced to optimism, which is only human. God does not mislead hope; God cannot deny himself. God is all promise.”

Poster for Puccini's 'Turandot', 1926

Poster for Puccini’s ‘Turandot’, 1926

Wagner, too, is the source for a provocative philosophical illustration about genius and delusion later in the course of the interview, from which it becomes plain that the Pope’s desire to remain close to the poor and his deep respect for popular piety in no way imply that he is anti-intellectual:

“Humans are in search of themselves, and, of course, in this search they can also make mistakes. The church has experienced times of brilliance, like that of Thomas Aquinas. But the church has lived also times of decline in its ability to think. For example, we must not confuse the genius of Thomas Aquinas with the age of decadent Thomist commentaries. Unfortunately, I studied philosophy from textbooks that came from decadent or largely bankrupt Thomism. In thinking of the human being, therefore, the church should strive for genius and not for decadence.

“When does a formulation of thought cease to be valid? When it loses sight of the human or even when it is afraid of the human or deluded about itself. The deceived thought can be depicted as Ulysses encountering the song of the Siren, or as Tannhäuser in an orgy surrounded by satyrs and bacchantes, or as Parsifal, in the second act of Wagner’s opera, in the palace of Klingsor. The thinking of the church must recover genius and better understand how human beings understand themselves today, in order to develop and deepen the church’s teaching.”

All these operatic references bring me to the occasion for writing this present post. I am currently in Rome, where tomorrow evening the young Russian soprano Svetlana Kasyan will be giving a recital of arias with orchestra in the Auditorium Conciliazione, a ‘concert for peace’ in solidarity with victims of war throughout the world and in honour of Pope Francis (with whom, the soprano’s Facebook page proudly informs us, she had dinner last night). This concert is co-sponsored by the Urbi et Orbi Foundation for Christian – particular Catholic/Orthodox – unity established by Dr Robert Moynihan, hero of a post on this blog earlier this year, and will feature both Italian repertoire and the music of Russian Orthodox theologian, churchman and composer Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) of Volokolamsk. Barely out of the Moscow Conservatory and Bolshoi Theatre’s Young Singers’ Academy, Georgian-born Svetlana Kasyan has already been making considerable waves in the opera world, and on the strength of this RAI broadcast excerpt of her Elisabetta/Don Carlo duet with the peerless Ramon Vargas, it is not difficult to see why:

This concert comes at an intriguing time for East-West Christian relations, as Robert Moynihan has pointed out repeatedly in his ‘Moynihan Letters’ over the last few months, as well as in his recent biography of Pope Francis, Pray with me. Pope Francis’s unusual awareness of and deep respect for Eastern Christian tradition (in Buenos Aires he had responsibility for the archdiocese’s Eastern Rite Catholics) is no secret, while there are also signs of a new openness to collaboration with Rome on the part both of Constantinople (with Patriarch Bartholomew I breaking new ground in attending Pope Francis’s inauguration) and Moscow, as can be seen from Metropolitan Hilarion’s typically thought-provoking recent address to the World Council of Churches in Korea . To which must be added the intriguing prospect – whatever one may think of its possible motivation – of Vladimir Putin’s visit to the Vatican later this month.

In this context, rich with possible ramifications both theological and socio-political, a recital including music by an Eastern Orthodox Archbishop sung by a Russian diva in honour of an opera-loving Pontiff is potentially serious business. Watch this space as we report back.

Musical ecumenism in Wales (ii)

In the first part of this post I discussed the premières of new Psalm-settings by Galina Grigorjeva and John Metcalf given by the Estonian vocal ensemble Vox Clamantis last week at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival in South Wales. These two first performances alone would have been enough to make this a memorable evening, but it should be said that the way in which they were contextualized was no less remarkable. And in what follows we will be talking theology as much as musicology.

Vox Clamantis are certainly no ordinary ensemble, and their programme formed an intriguing conceptual whole which can best be described as ‘ancient-future’ (exemplified by the sight of singers reading Gregorian chant off IPads!). They are not of course alone in mixing pre-Renaissance and contemporary music – an approach which dates back at least to the pioneering work of their Estonian colleagues Hortus Musicus (who were the first performers of Arvo Pärt’s tintinnabuli works of the mid- to late 1970s), and which has attained considerable popularity since the Officium collaboration between the Hilliard Ensemble and Jan Garbarek in 1994.

Vox Clamantis CD cover

As with these precedents, what made the Vale of Glamorgan Festival concert particularly captivating was the way in which music separated by many centuries seemed to flow seamlessly together. Ancient chant somehow emerges as engagingly contemporary (its anonymity offering a corrective to the cult of the individual that has been an integral part of post-Enlightenment musical history), while new composition draws on timeless tradition. It was for example difficult to know where the Gregorian Offertory Ave Maria finished and the beautiful, semi-improvised piece on the same text by Tõnis Kaumann – himself a member of Vox Clamantis and Hortus Musicus whose musical tastes range from the medieval to post-bebop jazz and Abba – began. Similarly there was clearly a correspondence of  mood as well as text between the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary which opened the evening and Helena Tulve’s Stella matutina, during which the audience were mesmerized by the sound of the composer’s own prepared piano accompaniment (reminiscent both of John Cage and Pärt’s Tabula Rasa).

As I have commented before, a focus on the person of the Mother of God Incarnate is one of the most striking features of what can be termed the ‘New Devotional Music’ of recent decades, and which was perfectly encapsulated by the Welsh performance of Vox Clamantis. Given that expressions of Marian devotion are frequently considered outmoded and sentimental in certain intellectual Catholic circles, it should be a cause for reflection that the figure of Mary should have come to the forefront of the work of a new generation of composers whose music is accessible yet anything but conservative. Furthermore, focusing musical attention on Jesus’s mother is by no means an exclusively Catholic phenomenon; the programme concluded with a recent composition by Arvo Pärt entitled Virgencita addressed to Our Lady of Guadalupe, which the pre-eminent Eastern Orthodox composer wrote as a ‘present to the people of Mexico’ for a visit there in 2012. Speaking of how he was impacted by the famous account of Mary’s apparition to Juan Diego in 1531 (which triggered the subsequent conversion to Christianity of nine million Aztecs), Pärt’s programme note mentions how his anticipation of being in the country and the name Guadalupe ‘left me no peace’. Virgencita is effectively a Spanish counterpart to Pärt’s Most Holy Mother of God written in English for the Hilliard Ensemble, and provides further evidence of the way in which many of the composer’s recent compositions have been moulded by the location of their première, with Pärt expressly looking for ways to combine his own idiom with the authentic spiritual tradition of the place in question (other examples being his La Sindone for Turin, Cecilia, vergine romana for Rome or his setting of ‘St Patrick’s Breastplate’ entitled The Deer’s Cry for Louth in Ireland).

Arvo Pärt’s commitment to the reconciliation of Eastern and Western Christian spirituality is long-standing and well-known, but wandering around the venue, St Augustine’s Church in Penarth, prior to the concert, it struck me that this was also an ecumenical musical event in a wider sense on at least two counts. Firstly, the church is something of a pilgrimage site for lovers of Protestant hymnody, with the graveyard being the final resting-place of the nineteenth-century Welsh composer Joseph Parry, author of one of the most well-loved tunes in the world’s hymnals, Aberystwyth , which first appeared in the Welsh-language hymn collection Ail Lyfr Tonau ac Emynau in 1879 but was subsequently immortalized in combination with Charles Wesley’s famous poem ‘Jesus, Lover of my soul’.

Grave of Joseph Parry (1841-1903)

Grave of Joseph Parry (1841-1903)

Secondly, inside St Augustine’s itself, although belonging to the Anglican Church of Wales, I noticed the incorporation both of Eastern Orthodox iconography and the text of St Bernard’s Memorare prayer beside a statue of the Virgin, making the Marian focus of the Vox Clamantis programme all the more appropriate in the local context.

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I have to admit that I might well not have paid such attention to these details had ecumenism, and especially signs of Catholic-Anglican convergence, not already been on my radar in the days preceding the Vale of Glamorgan Festival concert for a different reason. On May 13 and 14, the Anglican church Holy Trinity Brompton held a major leadership conference at the Royal Albert Hall in London with guests including both the new Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, whose moving interview with HTB’s Nicky Gumbel can be viewed online here

Cardinal Schönborn is undoubtedly one of the Catholic Church’s leading intellectuals, as should be obvious to anyone who has read his Chance or Purpose: Creation, Evolution, and a Rational Faith (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2007). However, he has also acquired both admirers and critics for being unafraid to speak in public in an intuitive manner not wholly reducible to conventional logic; whether you see him as an inspired, out-of-the-box thinker or a loose cannon (or both) depends on your point of view. In the course of his Albert Hall appearance he  made some typical arresting remarks about what he experienced as the ‘supernatural’ aspect of the recent Papal conclave (strangely congruent with similar comments appearing on the blog of Cardinal Mahony of L.A.) which have since gone viral in Church circles. He also made the intriguing observation – unprompted by Gumbel – about Pope Francis’s

‘strange similarity with your Archbishop Justin. I hope so much that they will meet soon […] I don’t know the secrets about how the conclave in Lambeth Palace works, but it looks like a little miracle that he became the Archbishop, doesn’t it ? So I think the Lord has given us a great sign through these two elections, and other signs. And you know what I have deeply in my heart, what the Lord is telling us and what I feel in what is going on here, what He is doing here, it is as if He would say to the world : ‘Come home, I wait for you.’’

Gumbel Schönborn

Cardinal Schönborn (right) with Nicky Gumbel

Anglican-Catholic dialogue and cooperation is of course nothing new, but three aspects of the top-level Catholic input into the Holy Trinity Brompton leadership conference strike me as particularly thought-provoking in terms of the their implications for the direction in which ecumenism currently seems to be progressing.

The first is the way in which Cardinal Schönborn’s recent trip to London is consistent with the ecumenical profile of Pope Francis himself (on which I have already commented on this blog). As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, the present Pontiff enjoyed a cross-denominational reputation in Argentina which was nothing short of remarkable, and he had been involved with the work of Holy Trinity Brompton’s ‘Alpha course in a Catholic context’ initiative, sending  four bishops from Argentina to an Alpha course leadership conference.

Secondly, Pope Francis and Cardinal Schönborn – both of whom have for example demonstrated an unusual degree of openness to the alleged Marian apparitions in Medjugorje, Bosnia – defy the stereotypical notion that Marian devotion needs to be downplayed on the Catholic side if ecumenical conversation is to make headway. If anything, the dialogical energy in the dialogue between Rome and Canterbury would appear to be flowing in the opposite direction, with Justin Welby’s predecessor Rowan Williams famously becoming the first Anglican Archbishop to preach in Lourdes as a pilgrim in 2008. Might it just be the case that, contrary to received notions in many quarters, restoring the mother of Jesus to her rightful place of honour as Theotokos will not exacerbate divisions within Christianity but help to overcome them?

Thirdly, in the final section of his interview with Nicky Gumbel, noting that both he and Archbishop Justin have (like himself) Jewish roots, Cardinal Schönborn moved registers, going beyond the Church in its present form to address the question of the need for the most fundamental of all reconciliations – mending the tragic historical fracture between Jew and Gentile:

‘the deepest wound in the Body of Christ is the wound between Israel and the Gentiles. In your body, in your life, and in Archbishop Justin’s life, and a little bit also in my own life […] I think we are called to ask the Lord to heal this deepest wound when it is His time.’

The reciprocal warmth of Pope Francis’s own relationship with the Argentine Jewish community is well-known, and little more than a few weeks after his accession to the Papacy, he accepted an invitation to visit Israel from President Shimon Peres, who intriguingly commented

“I am expecting you in Jerusalem, not just me but the whole country of Israel”

The prospects for this visit, it would appear, have stirred up just as much expectation within the Church as within Israel. Judging by the intuitions of Cardinal Schönborn, something of historical import seems to be ‘in the air’ here which runs counter to the obvious political tensions and violence in the Middle East which seem to be deepening with each day. Even if it is difficult for the moment to specify exactly what may lie ahead in what are perhaps both the worst and the best of times.

To be continued.

Отправлено с iPhone (Sent from IPhone) – Metropolitan Hilarion (2)

As I hinted in my last post, one of the voices that I have increasingly come to appreciate in recent weeks has been the Vaticanista Robert Moynihan, editor-in-chief of Inside the Vatican Magazine, whose regular postings at http://themoynihanletters.com on the dramatic events unfolding in Rome on a daily basis I have found unfailingly captivating. During the run-up to the conclave that elected Jorge Mario Bergoglio to the Papacy, I found him to be one of the few commentators able to strike a balance between an appropriate respect for Church leaders and straight talking on difficult issues (such as ‘Vatileaks’ and the 300-page dossier on the inner workings of the Holy See compiled by the ‘007 Cardinals’ Herranz, Tomko and De Giorgi which Pope Francis has presumably begun to peruse). In particular, Robert Moynihan has proved an invaluable resource for English-speaking readers who may not be aware that the vast majority of genuinely informative articles on Vatican affairs appear in Italian-only sources – with whose authors he is evidently personally acquainted and whose findings he makes available to a public outside Italy who might otherwise find the world of Catholic HQ utterly opaque.

Inside the Vatican publicity

What makes Dr Moynihan a rare quantity in my estimation is not only the extent of his frequently piquant insider information but an unusual theological depth of analysis (his training is in medieval studies, having written his doctorate at Yale on Joachim de Fiore under the legendary Church historian Jaroslav Pelikan). Nor is it merely a question of theoretical knowledge of ecclesial tradition and doctrine severed from a living spirituality. A good example of this was his letter #43 commenting on Cardinal Sodano’s homily on the eve of the conclave; in it Moynihan respectfully – and with the appropriate caveats – yet boldly expressed his feeling that what had been missing from the former Vatican Secretary of State’s message was ‘an emphasis on the mystical role of the Church in a process which leads ultimately (as Eastern Orthodox theology especially emphasizes) through union with Christ to the very “divinization” of man, the very sharing by man of the divine life’.

This is not the normal language of journalism, which is what makes the Moynihan Letters’ blend of investigative reporting and mystically- inclined reflection so fascinating.

Of particular interest for the current blog is the fact that it transpires from his recent posts that Robert Moynihan has been receiving messages via IPhone from the hero of a relatively recent article on Da stand das Meer, the Russian Orthodox archbishop, prolific theologian and fully paid-up classical composer Hilarion Alfeyev, a.k.a. Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, commonly regarded as the ‘foreign secretary’ of the Moscow Patriarchate.

As his quote about the Orthodox doctrine of theosis (divinization) indicates, East-West Christian reconciliation is a subject which Dr Moynihan holds dear. One of his first letters following the election of Pope Francis was a moving (at least for anyone with a heart for ecumenism) account of the new Pontiff’s meeting with Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, whom Francis chose to address as ‘My Brother Andrew’, a greeting whose historic significance is hard to over-estimate given the centuries of often painful relations between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

Francis Benedict XVI icon

The occasion for the IPhone message of Metropolitan Hilarion was the unprecedented meeting on March 23 of the two living successors of Peter, Francis and Benedict XVI, at which the former presented his predecessor with a Russian icon (the Madonna of Humility) – which it turns out had been given to the Argentinian Pontiff by Metropolitan Hilarion a couple of days previously at a private Papal audience. Rather than taking this as an act of ingratitude (along the lines of offloading an unsolicited box of chocolates when caught short of presents at a family gathering on December 26), the Orthodox Metropolitan was reportedly ‘very pleased and touched’.

Seeking to penetrate beneath the surface of events in characteristic fashion with the kind of intuition which makes his letters compelling reading, Dr Moynihan then offers his speculative interpretation of the symbolic importance in the appearance of the Russian icon – of Mary’s humility – in Rome as a gift from the East:

‘I sense in this a mysterious design, yes, a mystical design, something transcending our ordinary understanding of cause and effect, a design, as I see it, for Christians, for the Christian Church, to return to greater communion, greater unity, East and West, Greek and Latin, Orthodox and Catholic — with one of the great “hinge points” being… Russia.’

This would seem to resonate strongly with Metropolitan Hilarion’s own musico-theological vision, about which I wrote at the time of the Ecumenical Synod in Rome in October 2012. His words expressing his ecumenical understanding of Bach are worth re-quoting in the present context for the indication they offer of his understanding of the universal Church (emphasis mine):

Bach is a universal Christian phenomenon. His music transcends confessional boundaries; it is ecumenical in the original sense of the word, for it belongs to the world as a whole and to each citizen separately. We may call Bach an ‘orthodox’ composer in the original, literal sense of the Greek word ortho-doxos for throughout his life he learnt how to glorify God rightly. Invariably he adorned his musical manuscripts with the words Soli Deo Gloria (‘Glory to the One God’) or Jesu, juva (‘Help, O Jesus’). These expressions were for him not merely verbal formulae but a confession of faith that ran through all of his compositions. For Bach, music was worship of God. He was truly ‘catholic,’ again in the original understanding of the Greek word katholikos, meaning ‘universal,’ or ‘all-embracing,’ for he perceived the Church as a universal organism, as a common doxology directed towards God. Furthermore, he believed his music to be but a single voice in the cosmic choir that praises God’s glory. And of course, throughout his life Bach remained a true son of his native Lutheran Church. Albeit, as Albert Schweitzer noted, Bach’s true religion was not even orthodox Lutheranism but mysticism. His music is deeply mystical because it is based on an experience of prayer and ministry to God which transcends confessional boundaries and is the heritage of all humanity.
(‘Music and Faith in My Life and Vision’, lecture at the Catholic University of America, Washington D.C., February 9, 2011)

Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev)

Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev)

One of Hilarion Alfeyev’s latest works is a Stabat Mater which received its première in 2012 and of which video can be viewed online on his YouTube channel(!) MetropolitanHilarion. His musical language may at first strike some Western listeners as puzzlingly traditional, but it should be remembered that Eastern Orthodoxy has never considered innovation for its own sake as a virtue. Indeed it can be said that one of the most striking characteristics of his compositions are their total by-passing of the theoretical issues which so often dominate ‘classical’ contemporary music, despite the fact that the composer is manifestly a man of penetrating intellect whose scores have been promoted by major figures of Russian musical life such as Vladimirs Spivakov and Fedoseyev. Moreover, within his chosen modal/tonal idiom, he demonstrates an enviable fluency in his handling of the musical material and an ability to modulate which surpasses that of some well-known ex-avantgardistas I could mention whose attempted returns to tonal writing have often come to grief for want of the necessary harmonic and contrapuntal toolbox.

'The Conductor', dir. Pavel Lungin

‘The Conductor’, dir. Pavel Lungin

If Metropolitan Hilarion’s commitment to traditional musical means is obvious, this does not mean that he should be viewed as a composer operating in a time-warp. As its fourth section ‘Paradisi Gloria’ demonstrates, Metropolitan Hilarion’s Stabat Mater is not without some intriguingly postmodern populist touches, perhaps showing the influence of his teacher Vladimir Martynov, mixing some updated Vivaldi (à la Philip Glass?) with nods in the direction of Karl Jenkins, a figure for whom he has expressed a surprising degree of admiration. Start around the 15 minute mark and you’ll see what I mean; whatever your aesthetic preferences in terms of contemporary music, one thing is clear –  Hilarion Alfeyev, for all his monastic past, is a composer who is not shy of direct communication with a mass public. His listening audience appears to be considerable within Russia, and increased dramatically last year when his large-scale St Matthew Passion became the basis (and not merely the soundtrack) of the decidedly un-monastic film ‘The Conductor’ by cullt director Pavel Lungin, with whom the Archbishop has since appeared publicly.

Metropolitan Hilarion (not unlike Robert Moynihan) shows an apparently paradoxical blend of a commitment to ancient spirituality with an awareness of the possibilities of new technology and mass communications. At the age of 46 his is a name from whom we will doubtless be hearing a good deal more in the future both as a theologian and composer. And the odds are that it may well be via Twitter.

Robert Moynihan with Pope Benedict XVI and Metropolitan Hilarion

Robert Moynihan with Pope Benedict XVI and Metropolitan Hilarion

_________________

A two-part English-language podcast about Archbishop Hilarion which provides an insight into his musical childhood and study at the specialist Gnesin Music School and as a Moscow Conservatory composition student can be downloaded at http://english.ruvr.ru/2009/05/14/258997/ (part 2 focuses on his work as a composer of Church music). Russian speakers can watch an extended conversation between Pavel Lungin and Metropolitan Hilarion at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EzKOfv6mh9c, with the archbishop speaking about his collaboration with the film director at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dhjSAubYV3w. A trailer for ‘The Conductor’ can be viewed on-line at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8XYB5MKyk5U

New Devotion in Amsterdam

In an age where it seems that you can be virtually transported to more or less any concert hall in the world via the internet at a mouse-click’s distance, it might seem that few musical locations still possess any mystique these days. But there are (thankfully) still some magical places where entering through the door is enough to provoke a racing of the pulse. It was to one of these – the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam – that I had the privilege of making a day-pilgrimage last Saturday for the latest instalment in our unfolding Psalms Project. The occasion was a concert by the English chamber choir Polyphony under Stephen Layton featuring the first performance of a new unaccompanied setting of Psalm 67 by the highly-talented young Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds, to my mind one of the hottest properties in the world of contemporary sacred music.[1] Also on the programme was the première of a second setting of Psalm 67 by the Pole Paweł Łukaszewski (b. 1968) as well as works by Arvo Pärt (Bogoroditse Djévo, Magnificat) and Benjamin Britten (Ad Maioram Dei Gloriam, Hymn to St Cecilia).

Concertgebouw-Hans-Peter-HarmsenAmsterdam Concertgebouw (photo: Hans-Peter Harmsen)

The concert, intriguingly entitled ‘New Devotion’ (Nieuwe devotie), was part of the Dutch Radio’s highly innovative ‘ZaterdagMatinee’ series, held at 2.15 on Saturday afternoons. This somewhat unusual timing had been making me somewhat nervous all week. I was hoping against hope that the not-always-reliable Thalys hi-speed train from Paris that morning wouldn’t play a trick on me similar to the mechanical breakdown and four-hour delay that I experienced on my previous Dutch excursion for SDG a year ago to hear the première of Einojuhani Rautavaara’s recent a cappella Mass in Utrecht. Back then I had only missed the Dutch Radio Choir’s final rehearsal, but this time a comparable delay would have meant missing the event altogether! So I was highly relieved when I reached Amsterdam Centraal in time to take the tram across the Venice of the North to the Concertgebouw, arriving just as the morning rehearsal was finishing. The Concertgebouw surely remains a truly mythical hall (I suppose that only the Wiener Musikverein has an equivalent cachet in Europe) both in terms of acoustic and tradition, so it was a very special moment when I had the chance to greet Stephen Layton and the two composers of the day in the empty auditorium, surrounded only by the great names of the past embossed in big gold letters (‘BRUCKNER – MAHLER – FRANCK’ …) on panels below the balcony seats. As the context for the first performance of one of our Psalms Project pieces, we could hardly have asked for any better stamp of approval given that one of our objectives with the Project is to demonstrate that new compositions being written explicitly for use in Christian worship are not some second-rate ‘Church music’ which can only survive in a parallel universe where religious sincerity is accepted as a substitute for artistic excellence.  The occurrence of a Psalms Project première at a venue such as the Concertgebouw is, on the contrary, evidence this is some of the best new music around which needs no special pleading, even in an apparently ‘secular’ context. Within the constraints of a compressed seven-minute framework, Ešenvalds’ Psalm 67 came over as a powerfully communicative yet subtle piece, its harmonic and melodic gestures consistently well thought-out, with moments both of hushed intimacy and great strength.

Esenvalds-right-w-LukaszewskiEriks Esenvalds (right) with Pawel Lukaszewski

To see the hall packed to capacity for a daytime concert of 20th/21st century sacred unaccompanied choral works was pretty surprising, especially as the tickets weren’t exactly cheap (around $40). The audience moreover gave Polyphony a standing ovation at the end of the type they would normally give a Mahler symphony conducted by Riccardo Chailly or Mariss Jansons (Ešenvalds recalled having sung Mahler 8 under the latter in the Concertgebouw some years ago as a member of the Latvian State Choir). It does however have to be said that Polyphony is no ordinary choir, as you can judge for yourself by listening to the whole concert as streamed by Dutch Radio here. Having myself been a fellow music student alongside Stephen Layton at King’s College, Cambridge in the late 1980s, I was present at the some of Polyphony’s very first concerts 25 years ago, so it was interesting for me to reflect on the way in which they have since developed into one of the world’s truly great choral ensembles. In particular, Polyphony has done impressive service to the cause of sacred music through their many acclaimed recordings of well- and lesser-known composers (including both Ešenvalds and Łukaszewski).  As the Amsterdam concert demonstrated, their technical level is outstanding, combining great attention to details of rhythmic precision, diction and balance between voices with a richness of sound capable of filling the 1400 seat hall with only 27 singers.  Their dynamic range in particular was quite exceptional and cannot be conveyed by a radio recording made via close miking and dynamic compression technology. The audience reaction was however not merely – indeed not even primarily – an acknowledgement of superlative choral technique; I had the distinct sense that what was being appreciated was the emotional depth of the performance and, at least to some extent,  the profound and explicitly Christian spirituality expressed through the programme. Exactly the kind of spirituality that Holland – until the 1950s one of the most devout countries in Western Europe – seems to have tried to erase from its own collective memory.

It has to be remembered that the Concertgebouw is located in a city whose centre now has very few functioning places of worship. It is difficult to exaggerate the extent to which Amsterdam has violently and ostentatiously rejected its own rich Christian (and Jewish) tradition; as I have noted elsewhere on this blog, this is where ‘Paradiso’ is the name which was mockingly given to a deconsecrated church turned into a rock venue plastered with occult posters. Or, as I discovered on my way to the train station afterwards to take the Thalys back to Paris, where the sign ‘Church’ may well indicate a porn bar rather than a house of prayer. In this ultra-secular Dutch context, my impression was very much that the concert was in some ways a ‘para-liturgical’ event, the re-surfacing in a concert hall of a latent spirituality that may well for historical reasons be technically severed from formal religious institutions but is no less real for all that.

Dutch-Radio-interview-Esenvalds-300x225Hans Haffmans interviews Eriks Esenvalds and Pawel Lukaszewski

Just as thought-provoking as the concert were fascinating pre-concert radio interviews in English (followed by Dutch translation) with first Stephen Layton and then Ešenvalds/Łukaszewski, It was all pretty lively stuff as the interview was conducted in a corner of the Concertgebouw café where we were all sitting (if you listen hard you can probably hear me munching sandwiches and slurping coffee in the background …)

Accessing this isn’t as easy as listening to the recording of the concert, but for anyone interested in digging a little below the surface and undeterred by the Dutch-only interface, I highly recommend doing the following:

1. Click on http://ntrzaterdagmatinee.radio4.nl/uitzending/194155/NTR%20ZaterdagMatinee.html
2. Click on the play button on the audio player marked ‘Uitzending van Zaterdag 10 November’ and wait for the large file to load
3. Drag the cursor across to 12:55 on the slider (under the ‘I’ of ‘UITZENDING’) which is where the interview starts

Layton, Ešenvalds and Łukaszewski all make thought-provoking comments which are I think highly pertinent to the question of the historical and social rôle of New Sacred Music in a contemporary European context (but one which I would venture is not without a North American application at a time when the ‘spiritual but not religious’ constituency is growing all the time). I would also term it ‘gently subversive’ to the extent that all three, from their Anglican, Baptist and Catholic perspectives respectively, speak directly and without apology about belief in God. This, as one Dutch Radio representative commented to me, is a real taboo in the Netherlands, even going as far as to remark that he could hear the Divine Humour’ at work as we were listening. There was certainly a peculiar irony in hearing the Polish and Latvian composers, both of whom grew up in countries where the Church was subject to very real persecution, speaking out about their faith into a climate which is just as steeped in atheistmaterialism (of the consumer rather than the Marxist dialectical variety) as the former Eastern Bloc [2]. An additional point of interest here is the East-West aspect of the conversation, as Stephen Layton points out when discussing the inclusion on the programme of works by Benjamin Britten, seeing Arvo Pärt’s decision to write his famous Cantus in memory of the British composer on his death in 1976 as somehow prophetic of the events of the next two decades and the reunification of a continent which had seemed irremediably divided at the time of the Cold War.

Returning by train to the French capital that evening, I found myself wondering what to do with the term ‘New Devotion’ when applied to music, and struggling to put feelings into words. Perhaps nothing more should be read into it than a convenient descriptor for marketing purposes. Yet, as I listened again to the concert, I had the impression that whoever applied the phrase Nieuwe devotie to it was indeed attempting to denote something that merits a little conceptual exploration (and which has in the past been described – not necessarily positively – as  ‘holy’ or ‘spiritual minimalism’).

So … assuming for argument’s sake that ‘New Musical Devotion’ of the Christian variety exists, and at the risk of gross simplification, let me take a stab at outlining what might be seen as some of its salient features. And here I am not only referring to the ‘Holy Minimalists’ Pärt, Górecki, Tavener (to whom we can add Valentin Silvestrov), but also younger composers such as Ešenvalds, Łukaszewski, Roxanna Panufnik, Galina Grigorjeva (Estonia/Ukraine), Rihards Dubra (Latvia), Vladimir Godar (Slovakia) or Dobrinka Tabakova (Bulgaria).[2]

i) Even when expressing itself in a concert setting, the New Devotion conceives music as an act of worship whose focus is not the self-expression of the artist but the contemplation of a transcendent reality. It therefore has as basis outside itself.

ii) Its primary focus is liturgical/doxological – any didactic component is secondary; I may be generalizing here, but New Musical Devotion prefers to ‘pray with’ rather than to ‘preach at’.

iii) New Musical Devotion seeks simplicity and sees music as being in a continuum with silence.

iv) New Devotion is unafraid of beauty, despite the ideological taboos placed on consonance by the post-1945 avant-garde. It shows no interest in proving its credentials with the New Music establishment; it does not attempt to argue with the critics who see it as sentimental or intellectually vapid, but quietly goes its own way without waiting for ‘official sanction’ from musical institutions. Although not ‘anti-intellectual’, New Musical Devotion appeals strongly to the heart and to audiences who may feel alienated by other forms of contemporary music.

v) Geographically, New Musical Devotion seems from the outset to have had its main poles in the British Isles and the former Eastern Bloc, with considerable cross-fertilization between the two (facilitated in many cases by the championing of Central/European composers by British performers whose training is strongly linked to the Anglican liturgical tradition).

vi) Although there are considerable commonalities of musical idiom and subject-matter linking the composers in question, the New Devotion – unlike, say, the ‘Second Viennese’ or ‘Darmstadt’ Schools – has not arisen because of the work of any teacher, institution or adherence to an artistic ‘manifesto’; the artists concerned have largely developed independently from one another and their similarities only observed a posteriori.

vii) New Musical Devotion is ‘new’ to the extent that it has emerged after a major historical rupture which it does not attempt to deny (the years of Communist rule in Eastern Europe, the collapse of the institutional Church in the West). The musical acknowledgement of this rupture can be seen in a desire to write music with tonal references while refusing to reinstate functional tonality – the product of a limited historical and geographical context – as a system. Instead, New Devotion’s use of tonal sonorities occurs within a broader modal framework antedating tonality per se and open to other musical idioms outside the Western post-Renaissance tradition (an obvious example being the Hilliard Ensemble/Jan Garbarek Officium Novum project).

viii) Following on from this, New Musical Devotion makes considerable retrieval of pre-modern musical and textual sources in order to generate a post-modern idiom (in theological terms, this can be termed ‘ressourcement‘, a ‘return to the sources’).

ix) Although its individual practitioners are rooted in their own confessional traditions, New Musical Devotion is an ecumenical phenomenon involving Eastern Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant composers; it moreover sees no contradiction in appealing to traditional Christian spiritual practices while also being actively involved in inter-faith dialogue (Pärt’s Adam’s Lament , Tavener Beautiful Names, R. Panufnik Abraham). While maintaining Christian distinctiveness, the New Devotional Music honours others’ religious traditions.  It exhibits an especially strong convergence with the New Jewish-American Music of Steve Reich, Aaron Kernis, David Lang and others.

x) As a matter of observation, New Musical Devotion, while primarily focused on the worship of the Trinity, also appears to  be significantly Marian on two levels (Protestants please bear with me on this one before hitting the ‘exit’ button, as the phenomenon in question is not exclusively Catholic!).

The first level is thematic, as borne out not only by the considerable number of Ave Marias (Silvestrov, Łukaszewski, R. Panufnik …), but by many other ‘New Devotional’ compositions written over the last 40 years in which Jesus’s Mother features prominently: Górecki Ad Matrem (1971), Symphony n.3 (1976), O Domina nostra (1982/1990), Totus Tuus (1987), Tavener The Protecting Veil (1989), Sollemnitas in Conceptione Immaculata Beatae Mariae Virginis (2006), Pärt Stabat Mater (1985), Magnificat (1989), Bogoroditse Djevo (1990), Salve Regina (2001/2), Most Holy Mother of God (2003), Ešenvalds Passion and Resurrection (2005), Vladimir Godar Mater (2006), Rihards Dubra Hail, Queen of Heaven (2008) …

The second, deeper level is more a question of general orientation – the New Devotion can be described as ‘Marian’ to the extent that its fundamental attitude is contemplative, regarding music as a gift to be received with gratitude rather than the product of the artist’s ego. This is of course only my personal interpretation, but there is a sense in which the composers of  New Devotional Music are linked in their refusal to impose artistic will on the musical material, to impress or to seek novelty for its own sake. Here there is an attitude of relinquishment which Christian tradition has seen as taking its human cue from Mary’s response to the Annunciation in Luke 1:38, foreshadowing the life of obedience and self-emptying of her Son in words that surely ought to resonate with all Christians across denominational boundaries:

Behold, I am the servantof the Lord; let it be to me according to your word. (ESV)

Perhaps the most moving moment of Polyphony’s triumphant concert at the Concertgebouw came when, to everyone’s surprise, conductor Stephen Layton himself sang the opening baritone solo to Ēriks Ešenvalds’ Psalm 67. With his back to the audience, quietly and without any sense of show, just as an Anglican priest might chant during an Evensong service of the sort for which the piece was written. Both musically and gesturally the moment seemed to me to capture the meditative essence of the ‘New Musical Devotion’ at its best – a ‘letting go’, a freedom from the desire to prove anything to anyone.

______________

NOTES

[1] Plans are well in hand for a first US performance of Ēriks Ešenvalds’ Psalm 67 in 2013. Watch http://www.sdgmusic.org for further details.

[2] Proposition 20 : THE NEW EVANGELIZATION AND THE WAY OF BEAUTY
In the New Evangelization, there should be a particular attention paid to the way of beauty: Christ, the “Good Shepherd” (cf. Jn 10:11) is the Truth in person, the beautiful revelation in sign, pouring himself out without measure. It is important to give testimony to the young who follow Jesus, not only of his goodness and truth, but also of the fullness of his beauty. As Augustine affirmed, “it is not possible to love what is not beautiful” (Confessions, Bk IV, 13.20). Beauty attracts us to love, through which God reveals to us his face in which we believe. In this light artists feel themselves both spoken to and privileged communicators of the New Evangelization.

In the formation of seminarians, education in beauty should not be neglected nor education in the sacred arts as we are reminded in the teaching of the Second Vatican Council (cf. Sacrosanctum concilium, 129). Beauty should always be a special dimension of the new evangelization.
It is necessary that the Church be vigilant in caring for and promoting the quality of the art that is permitted in the sacred spaces reserved for liturgical celebrations, guarding both its beauty and the truthfulness of its expression.It is important for the New Evangelization that the Church be present in all fields of art, so as to support with her spiritual and pastoral presence the artists in their search for creativity and to foster a living and true spiritual experience of salvation that becomes present in their work.

http://www.vatican.va/news_services/press/sinodo/documents/bollettino_25_xiii-ordinaria-2012/02_inglese/b33_02.html

[3] Much of what follows can also be applied to others major contemporary composers of sacred music such as Gubaidulina, Penderecki or MacMillan, although their relationship to European Modernism is complex and merits separate treatment.

Guardians of beauty (2) – Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev

Hilarion-Alfeyev-200x300

Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk

Our last post took us to Rome and the part played by composer and SDG advisory board member in the launch of the ‘Year of Faith’ celebrated on October 11th in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council and the Synod on the New Evangelisation.  If James MacMillan is arguably the best-known Catholic musician in the English-speaking world, it may come as a surprise to learn that he is not the only composer of sacred music to be playing an active role in the proceedings in Rome at the moment. One of the most striking features of the Synod is its ecumenical focus; I have already commented on the typically thought-provoking speech offered to the Synod by Archbishop Rowan Williams last week. This week it was the turn of the Eastern Orthodox Church, with an address being given by the Moscow Patriarchate’s head of the department for External Church Relations (read: ‘foreign minister’), Metropolitan Hilarion [Alfeyev] of Volokolamsk. Who at the age of 46 is not only one of the youngest churchmen involved in top-level ecumenical dialogue, but is also a prolific composer.

I would like to emphasize that we are not merely talking about ‘occasional’ works here, even if, given his heavy ecclesial responsibilities, much of Metropolitan Hilarion’s writing apparently happens in airport lounges during his displomatic trips. His catalogue contains a number of major compositions which are gaining increasing international exposure, including a two-hour St Matthew Passion (recorded by Vladimir Fedosseyev), a 75-minute Christmas Oratorio (premièred at the National Shrine in Washington DC) as well as a Divine Liturgy and All-Night Vigil. All these were written in recent years; having received his early training at the Moscow Gnesin School and Conservatory while still contemplating a musical career, Hilarion Alfeyev subsequently abandoned composition when he took monastic vows at the age of 20, only returning to composition in 2006.[1]  Next month the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra will give the first performance of his latest choral symphony, Song of Ascent .

Metropolitan Hilarion is also a highly articulate and at times provocative speaker about music and its relation to faith, as you can judge by reading the text of a stimulating lecture he gave at the Catholic University of America in 2011. Although his own work is steeped in his own Orthodox liturgical tradition, pride of place in his musical thinking nonetheless goes to J.S. Bach not only as a compositional ‘colossus’ but also as the ultimate ecumenical composer:

Bach is a universal Christian phenomenon. His music transcends confessional boundaries; it is ecumenical in the original sense of the word, for it belongs to the world as a whole and to each citizen separately. We may call Bach an ‘orthodox’ composer in the original, literal sense of the Greek word ortho-doxos for throughout his life he learnt how to glorify God rightly. Invariably he adorned his musical manuscripts with the words Soli Deo Gloria (‘Glory to the One God’) or Jesu, juva (‘Help, O Jesus’). These expressions were for him not merely verbal formulae but a confession of faith that ran through all of his compositions. For Bach, music was worship of God. He was truly ‘catholic,’ again in the original understanding of the Greek word katholikos, meaning ‘universal,’ or ‘all-embracing,’ for he perceived the Church as a universal organism, as a common doxology directed towards God. Furthermore, he believed his music to be but a single voice in the cosmic choir that praises God’s glory. And of course, throughout his life Bach remained a true son of his native Lutheran Church. Albeit, as Albert Schweitzer noted, Bach’s true religion was not even orthodox Lutheranism but mysticism. His music is deeply mystical because it is based on an experience of prayer and ministry to God which transcends confessional boundaries and is the heritage of all humanity.

As is perhaps to be expected given his own philosophical and theological training in a tradition known for its trenchant critique of many aspects of Western society, Metropolitan Hilarion’s narrative of art-music after Bach is somewhat negative. Despite his love of the Germanic symphonic repertoire and the achievements of Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms, he like many Eastern Orthodox views the development of Western culture in terms of increasing individualism and secularization, leading to the evacuation of the sacred in the twentieth century[2]:

During the epochs of Impressionism and the Avant-garde, interest in anything to do with religion seems to have faded altogether. Avant-garde composers renounced the final elements that linked music to faith – the elements of harmony and of beauty as fundamental for musical creativity. Cacophony and disharmony became the constructive fabric with which musical works were built.

With John Cage’s 4:33 we reach the dénouement of this narrative:

The appearance of this work in 1952 bore witness to the fact that the musical Avant-garde had completely exhausted itself – as if it had nothing more to say. Cage’s silence has little in common with the spiritual silence that burgeons from the depths of religious experience: his was simply a soundlessness which testified to the complete spiritual collapse of the musical Avant-garde.

One may of course agree or disagree with this interpretation of the significance of John Cage. The fact that his influence can be detected in ‘spiritual minimalist’ works such as the large-scale Organ and Silence of Tom Johnson (1939 – ) or Valentin Silvestrov’s Hymn 2001 suggests that there may be more common ground between Cage and ‘spiritual silence’ than one might at first suspect. However, Metropolitan Hilarion’s reading of history is certainly not wanting for clarity. Intriguingly, the major exception to his predominantly jaundiced take on modern music is a composer who wrote no overtly ‘sacred music’ whatsoever:

It is my personal view that, in the history of twentieth-century music, there is only one composer who, in terms of talent and depth of inspired searching, comes close to Bach, and that is Shostakovich.

Bach’s music is dedicated to God and permeated by an ecclesiastical spirit. Shostakovich, on the other hand, lived at a different time and in a country where God and the Church were never spoken about openly. Yet at the same time all of his creative work reveals him to have been a believer. While he did not write church music and apparently did not attend Church services, his music nonetheless confirms that he felt deeply the disastrous nature of human existence without God and that he experienced profoundly the tragedy of modern society – a godless society – which had renounced its roots. This yearning for the Absolute, this longing for God, this thirst for truth prevails in all of his works – in his symphonies, quartets, preludes and fugues.

Shostakovich was someone who could not be broken by repression or condemnation by the powers that be. He always served the Truth. I believe that, like Dostoevsky, he was a great spiritual and moral example, whose voice, like that of a prophet, cried out in the wilderness. This voice, however, evoked and continues to evoke a response in the hearts of millions of people.

This retrospective ‘baptism’ of Shostakovich is certainly a bold move on Metropolitan Hilarion’s part, given that his statement that ‘all of his creative work reveals him to have been a believer’ is the last thing that most readers would say on reading the composer’s statements (albeit allowing for a little ‘editorial help’ from Solomon Volkov) in Testimony. However, it is undeniably striking that Shostakovich has haunted many composers of explicitly Christian works – myself included -, of whom Alfred Schnittke, Sofia Gubaidulina and James MacMillan are perhaps the most obvious examples. Indeed, it might not be going too far to say that they have related to a certain intuited spiritual potential in Shostakovich’s music in much the same way as Messiaen related to Debussy’s Pelléas, or Bruckner and Franck to Wagner.

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On the subject of contemporary music, Hilarion Alfeyev- who himself writes in an unashamedly tonal/modal idiom, but in a manner which should not simply be dismissed as derivative – is nothing if not outspoken. As one might predict, he feels an affinity with the work of Arvo Pärt, John Taverner and Henryk Górecki (echoes of whose Symphony n.3 can be heard in Hilarion’s St Matthew Passion). Less expected, however, is his advocacy of Karl Jenkins’ Requiem as a ‘real masterpiece of contemporary music’,[3] or his enthusiasm for Andrew Lloyd Webber:

There are compositions in popular music imbued with high spiritual content and are written skillfully (for instance, the famous rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar). No doubt, this composition is not in keeping with church criteria, but the author did not purport to present the canonical image of Christ. He achieved his objective outstandingly well by telling the story of Christ’s Passion in a language understandable to the youth and through the medium of contemporary music. I appreciate this music more emphatically than I do the works of many avant-garde composers, since the latter sometimes eschew melody, harmony, and inner content.

Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk is clearly a man of strong musical as well as theological convictions. Somewhat reminiscent in his directness of the great Russian Orthodox theologian Georges Florovsky (1893-1979), a prime contributor to the work of the World Council of Churches in its early years, his constructive engagement with ecumenism cannot be taken as implying any kind of easy-going relativism. Archbishop Hilarion rather operates from the premise that genuine dialogue also needs to make space for robust exchange (or even confrontation) if it is to be meaningful.[4] His views on theology and aesthetics may not be to all tastes, but one thing seems certain – given that he is still only in his mid-40s, this is a name of which we are likely to hear much more in the future, both as a churchman and composer. Watch this space.

______________

Pdf scores of some of Metropolitan Hilarion’s works can be downloaded at http://hilarion.ru/en/works/scores . An interview in which he talks about his recent meeting with Pope Benedict XVI can be heard on-line at http://www.news.va/en/news/metropolitan-hilarion-on-evangelisation-and-reconc

For video of a Russian TV broadcast of his St Matthew Passion, see http://blip.tv/jesuit/la-passion-selon-saint-matthieu-par-mgr-hilarion-alfeyev-2405257

NOTES

[1] http://english.ruvr.ru/2009/05/14/258997.html

[2] Metropolitan Hilarion’s musical historiography is not dissimilar to those of his composition teacher, the cult figure Vladimir Martynov (1946-), as can be seen from an interview with one of Martynov’s chief advocates in the West, conductor Vladimir Jurowski (who brought Martynov’s controversially polystilistic Dante opera Vita Nuova to London in 2009): http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2009/feb/13/vladimir-martynov

[3] http://www.crisismagazine.com/2012/an-interview-with-metropolitan-hilarion-alfeyev

[4] While this approach to Church diplomacy on the part of the Moscow Patriarchate may seem abrasive to some, it cannot be denied that it has yielded genuine fruit on terrain where the avoidance of painful historical issues is impossible, most notably in the form of a recent joint declaration by the Moscow Patriarch and the President of Polish Catholic Bishops which has been hailed as a breakthrough document in terms of reconciliation between the two nations. An English translation of this declaration can be found at http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/1350310?eng=y

Guardians of beauty – James MacMillan in Rome

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Opening of Vatican II, October 11, 1962 (photo: Peter Geymayer)

One for the dispatch box – our thoughts today are with regular SDG collaborator and advisory board member James MacMillan, currently in Rome for a very special assignment. At today’s Mass in St Peter’s Square launching the Year of Faith, ‘a pilgrimage in the deserts of today’s world'[1], the Scottish composer received from Pope Benedict XVI a copy on behalf of the world’s artists of a message given by Pope Paul VI on December 8, 1965. Proclaimed during the concluding ceremonies of the Second Vatican Council (whose proceedings opened fifty years ago today), Paul VI’s message contains a passage directly addressed to the artistic community on the role of art in the contemporary world which surely offers as much food for thought in 2012 as in 1965:

To Artists:

We now address you, artists, who are taken up with beauty and work for it: poets and literary men, painters, sculptors, architects, musicians, men devoted to the theater and the cinema. To all of you, the Church of the council declares to you through our voice: if you are friends of genuine art, you are our friends.

The Church has long since joined in alliance with you. You have built and adorned her temples, celebrated her dogmas, enriched her liturgy You have aided her in translating her  divine message in the language of forms and figures, making the invisible world palpable. Today, as yesterday, the Church needs you and turns to you. She tells you through our voice: Do not allow an alliance as fruitful as this to be broken. Do not refuse to put your talents at the service of divine truth. Do not close your mind to the breath of the  Holy Spirit.

This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. It is beauty, like truth, which brings joy to the heart of man and is that precious fruit which resists the wear and tear of time, which unites generations and makes them share things in admiration. And all of this is through your hands. May these hands be pure and disinterested. Remember that you are the guardians of beauty in the world. May that suffice to free you from tastes which are passing and have no genuine value, to free you from the search after strange or unbecoming expressions. Be always and everywhere worthy of your ideals and you will be worthy of the Church which, by our voice, addresses to you today her message of friendship, salvation, grace and benediction.

Paul VI, December 8, 1965

For more about James MacMillan’s participation in the ceremony, which was also attended by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (the composer’s theological consultant for his work Parthenogenesis (2000), a collaboration facilitated by another SDG advisory board member, Jeremy Begbie) and Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I, see

http://www.scmo.org/articles/james-macmillan-honoured-in-papal-ceremony.html

http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2012/10/11/benedict-xvi-and-council-fathers-to-open-year-of-faith/

[1] ‘This, then, is how we can picture the Year of Faith: a pilgrimage in the deserts of today’s world, taking with us only what is necessary: neither staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money, nor two tunics – as the Lord said to those he was sending out on mission (cf. Lk 9:3), but the Gospel and the faith of the Church’ Excerpt from Pope Benedict XVI’s homily, which can be read in full at

http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2012/10/11/full-text-of-popes-homily-opening-year-of-faith/

Science and near-death experience: a gathering storm? (ii) – Life Review

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Cochin Hospital, Paris (photo: Lepetitlord)

(Thoughts for Rachel Held Evans, Tony Jones and Tim Challies)

 Again, an embarrassingly long time has passed since the last instalment of this particular thread on near-death experiences, at the end of which we left NDEr Howard Storm languishing in the ‘sewer of the universe’ following his (shambolic) hospitalization at the Cochin hospital in Paris with a ruptured duodenum in 1985.

This is not of course to say that the subject has gone away in the meantime. In particular, there have been at least three heated discussions of the topic in the theo-blogosphere (focussing on Baptist pastor Don Piper’s best-selling 90 minutes in Heaven) hosted by Tim Challies at http://www.challies.com/articles/heaven-tourism, Rachel Held Evans http://rachelheldevans.com/afterlife-memoirs , and Tony Jones at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tonyjones/2012/06/22/don-piper-did-not-go-to-heaven/#comments .

The many readers’ reactions on these pages are perhaps just as if not more interesting than the original articles of the three bloggers in question. Not least because of the participation of a fair number of near-death experiencers for whom the various objections raised by the sceptics (largely on theological grounds) do not square with the self-authenticating nature of what is evidently experientially compelling for them. A common and frustrating feature of the comments (with a few notable exceptions) is however the generally poor level of logical analysis, frequent recourse to a priori arguments and above all a lack of sober engagement with the substantial body of scientific research on the subject, much of which is readily available to the general public via the internet. I will return to all this at the end of the current article, but let’s begin with a very brief summary of the next stage in Howard Storm’s gripping narrative in My Descent into Death.

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The story so far: Storm, having been left untreated on a hospital trolley for 10 hours in a life-threatening condition, has had an unexpected out-of-body experience,  during which he has been duped into following a group of people dressed as hospital orderlies who lead him outside our normal realm of space-time and turn on him like a lynch mob. He has been able to repel his assailants by reciting something vaguely resembling a prayer, but now finds himself in total existential isolation, ‘left alone to become a creature of the dark’. Storm (who despite his professed atheism had been brought up attending a Congregational church on the outskirts of Boston) then recalls himself as a small boy ‘full of innocence, trust, and hope’ singing ‘Jesus loves me, da da da’:

‘A ray of hope began to dawn in me, a belief that there really was something greater out there. For the first time in my adult life I wanted it to be true that Jesus loved me. I didn’t know how to express what I wanted and needed, but with every bit of my last ounce of strength, I yelled out into the darkness, “Jesus, save me.”‘[1]

This is the one part of Storm’s story that in isolation might at first sound suspiciously like a piece of traditional Christian apologetics; at this point, there appears a light ‘brighter than the sun, brighter than a flash of lightning’, and a Being of Light (identified as Jesus in the book) radiating unconditional love, who rescues him from the cosmic cesspit.

The Being of Light takes Howard Storm up and out of the darkness towards the ‘brilliant white center of the universe’. However, Storm (whose tone throughout is remarkably free from self-exaltation) describes himself as racked by feelings of shame, thinking to himself “I am scum that belongs back down in the sewer. They have made a terrible mistake. I don’t belong here.” At this point, he is reassured that “we don’t make mistakes, and you do belong here”, and is comforted by the appearance of beings whom he depicts in terms that could have been taken straight from Olivier Messiaen’s commentaries to works such as Quatuor pour la fin du temps or Couleurs de la cité céleste:

‘Then Jesus called out in a musical tone to some of the luminous entities radiating from the great center. Several came and circled round us. The radiance emanating from them contained exquisite colors of a range and intensity far exceeding anything I had seen before. It was like looking at the iridescence in the deep brilliance of a diamond. We simply do not have the words to express their beauty. When you look into a bright light, the intensity hurts your eyes. These being were far brighter than the most powerful searchlight, yet I could look at them with no sense of discomfort. In fact, their radiance penetrated me; I could feel it inside and through me, and it made me feel wonderful. It was ecstasy. These were the saints and angels.'[2]

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Fra Angelico (1395/1400-1455), Annunciation (detail), Museo San Marco, Florence

(Messiaen’s inspiration for the costume of the Angel in the première of Saint François d’Assise)

Light untellable

Such descriptions of an unearthly radiance shining from within, incomparably brighter than any created light, yet curiously possible to contemplate without being blinded, are so common and similar within the near-death literature as to have become a cliché. However, it should be stressed that they seem to occur irrespective of the religious background (or lack of it) of the experiencer, and join a long mystical tradition, as Evelyn Underhill points out in her 1911 classic Mysticism:

“Light rare, untellable!” said Whitman. “The flowing light of the Godhead,” said Mechthild of Magdeburg, trying to describe what it was that made the difference between her universe and that of normal men. “Lux vivens dicit” [the living light speaks], said St. Hildegarde of her revelations, which she described as appearing in a special light, more brilliant than the brightness round the sun. It is an “infused brightness,” says St. Teresa, “a light which knows no night; but rather, as it is always light, nothing ever disturbs it”[3]

Evelyn-Underhill-cover-200x300

The language employed to evoke the notion of a light unknown in worldly categories is arrestingly similar in many contemporary near-death reports, however much they may diverge in the metaphysical interpretation of the radiance:

‘It looked unspeakably bright, as if it was the centre of the universe, the source of all light and power. It was more brilliant than the sun, more radiant than any diamond, brighter than a laser beam light.  Yet you could look right into it.’ (A Glimpse of Eternity: One Man’s Encounter with Life Beyond Death, Ian McCormack/Jenny Sharkey. Available on-line at http://aglimpseofeternity.org/ians-testimony/ians-testimony.php)

‘All of a sudden, I was aware of a tiny bright light far away in the “sky” but rapidly coming nearer and nearer. It was shaped like a ball and it was indescribably bright. I tried to shade my eyes, but I did not need to. Despite its incredible brightness and brilliance, it did not dazzle me a bit!

Presently, this light stopped at a distance right above me. It was a sun about the same size as the sun of our world, but it was indescribably brighter. I kept staring at this sun wondering how a light could possess such brilliance.’ http://near-death.com/wagner.html

‘It was like a hundred thousand suns. Bright, incredibly bright. I could look directly in that light. It was so very powerful and ever so bright.’ http://celestial.kuriakon00.com/nde/ken_mullens.htm

‘The pinpoint of Light became a brilliant white beam a trillion times brighter than the brightest sun imaginable, and began to move toward me.  At first, it appeared to be bands of multifaceted light being stretched and pulled together.  I knew this Light was the presence of God.

I was awestruck, overwhelmed by the Light, the love, the love of God for me!  I knew I could go into this Light, which was part of a tremendous force.  And, although the Light was brighter than a thousand suns, it didn’t hurt my eyes.’ http://www.near-death.com/morrissey.html

‘I looked at the fire and realized it was brighter than a thousand suns but you could stare at it without hurting your eyes.’ http://iands.org/experiences/nde-accounts/809-kissed-by-a-marshmallow.html

‘The light – the fantastic light. It was brighter than the sun shining on a field of snow. Yet I could look at it and it didn’t hurt my eyes.’ http://www.near-death.com/group.html

‘The light was so bright that it was brighter than 10,000 suns and I immediately said, “This should be burning my retinas, but it wasn’t. It was a gentle but powerful light. It was pulling me like a gentle magnet.’ http://www.in5d.com/spiritual-reality-nde.html

‘Then I saw a great white light at the end of the tunnel and to me this light was God. I don’t know how to explain it other than it was brighter than the sun.’ http://iands.org/nde-stories/nde-like-accounts/371-light-brighter-than-the-sun.html

‘We then began going towards this beautiful light. As we got closer to it, the light just engulfed me. It was brighter than the sun but didn’t hurt my eyes.’ http://www.examiner.com/article/glauco-schaffer-and-his-two-brothers-drowning-ndes-ii

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Page from Hildegard of Bingen’s Liber Scivias Domini (12th century)

In the company of the beings of Light Howard Storm proceeds to undergo what is one of the most striking features of many near-death accounts, and an aspect for which no physiological account of the NDE phenomenon (as for example produced by a lack of oxygen, an excess of CO2 in the blood, endorphin action or the administration of anaesthetics such as Ketamine) has ever produced a coherent explanation: a panoramic, interactive life review.

While by no means a universal part of near-death experience reports, the similarities between life reviews in the NDE literature are such as to merit serious comment. The idea that in the last moments before death the dying person sees her whole life flash before her in an instant is such a commonplace as to be the stuff of urban legend, but the type of life review described by Storm and many others is much more than this. Moreover, these reviews are often intriguingly counter-intuitive, even for those of us brought up in religious traditions in which the inexorability of judgment is an integral part of the structure of moral accountability built into the universe.

Although researchers have stressed that there is a wide variety amongst reported life reviews, there are at least three consistent features of accounts such as Storm’s which are striking for the way in which they confound pre-conceived notions and can be found recurring in many independent narratives:
i) The only dimension of human life which seems to be concerned is the question of how the near-death experiencer has treated other people while on earth. Society’s notions of ‘achievement’ seem to be entirely irrelevant; indeed, the life review may concentrate on events which at first sight seem completely trivial[4]
ii) Although initiated and accompanied by the Being or beings of light, the ‘judgment’ (which is probably best understood as preliminary and pedagogical, not a final verdict as in Biblical passages such as Matthew 25 or Revelation 20[5]) is basically a self-evaluation, a realization of the true moral import of our lives once we are taken outside our limited individual perspective.
iii) The key feature of the life review – and one whose very strangeness would seem to be an indication of authenticity – is that the reviewer is made to understand the effects of her actions on others from their point of view:

‘We watched and experienced episodes that were from the point of view of a third party. The scenes they showed me were often of incidents I had forgotten. They showed their effects on people’s lives, of which I’d had no previous knowledge. They reported the thoughts and feelings of people I had interacted with, which I had been unaware of at the time.'[6]

Another excellent example of this can be found in the account of Steven Fanning read out in Huston Smith’s thought-provoking Ingersoll Lecture given at Harvard Divinity School on October 18, 2001 entitled ‘Intimations of Mortality: Three Case Studies’:

‘With the Being beside me, exuding love and comfort to me, I re-experienced my life, and it was not what I would have expected. While growing up in a fundamentalist church, I had been told many times about what it would be like when one faced God after death. It would be something like watching God’s movie of your life (as in Albert Brooks’s film Defending Your Life). You would watch all the scenes of your life on the screen and there would be nothing you could do but admit that the record was true: ‘Well, I guess you got me, fair and square.’ But this is not what happened. It was a re-experiencing of my life, but from three different perspectives simultaneously.'[7]

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Huston Smith, 2005

Fanning describes the first perspective in terms of ‘reliving of overt events as it was re-experiencing the emotions, feelings, and thoughts of my life. Here were the emotions that I had felt and why I had believed that I had them. Here were my conscious reasons for the actions that I had taken. Here were the hurts I felt and my responses to them. Here was my emotional life as I recalled having experienced it.’ However, the second perspective is that of others:

‘I felt what they felt, I lived their emotions as they acted with and reacted to me. This was their version of my life. When I thought they were clearly out of line and reacted with anger or thoughtlessness, I felt the pain and frustration my actions caused them. It was an absolutely different view of my life and it was not a pretty one. It was shocking to feel the pain that another person felt due to what I had done even as, when I did them, I believed myself to have been fully justified because of the person’s own actions. At the time I had told myself that I was justified, but even if that were true, their pain was real. It hurt.'[8]

Many other similar examples of what eminent near-death researchers Kenneth Ring of the University of Connecticut and Evelyn Elsaesser Valarino aptly term a ‘surprising empathic turnabout’ could be offered here, but one particularly compelling one can be found in the NDE account of Thomas Sawyer as recounted in Ring’s and Valarino’s Lessons from the Light.  In his review Sawyer among other things re-experienced an altercation in which he had beaten up a pedestrian whose only offence was that he had almost collided with a pick-up truck that Sawyer had been driving:

‘Tom was forced to relive this scene, and like many others who have described their life reviews to me, he found himself doing so from a dual perspective. One part of himself, he said, seemed to be high up in a building overlooking the street from which perch he simply witnessed, like an elevated spectator, the fight taking place below. But another part of Tom was actually involved in the fight again. However, this time, in the life review, he found himself in the place of the other party, and experienced each distinct blow he had inflicted on this man — thirty-two in all, he said — before collapsing unconscious on the pavement.'[9]

The comment on such life reviews in Ring’s and Valarino’s book is worth quoting:

‘Perhaps the most obvious — and important — insight that is voiced, in one way or another, is that this exercise forces one to think about the meaning of the Golden Rule in an entirely new way. Most of us are accustomed to regard it mainly as a precept for moral action — “do unto others as you would be done to.” But in the light of these life review commentaries, the Golden Rule is much more than that — it is actually the way it works. In short, if these accounts in fact reveal to us what we experience at the point of death, then what we have done unto others is experienced as done unto ourselves. Familiar exhortations such as, “love your brother as yourself,” from this point of view are understood to mean that, in the life review, you yourself are the brother you have been urged to love. And this is no mere intellectual conviction or even a religious credo — it is an undeniable fact of your lived experience.‘[10]

Returning to Fanning’s report, it is however the third perspective which is the only one that can be labelled as true in an ultimate sense:

‘It was not my version, with my justifications. It was not that of the others in my life, with their versions of my life and their own justifications for their own actions, thoughts, and feelings. It was an unbiased view, free of the subjective and self-serving rationalizations that the others and I had used to support the countless acts of selfishness and lack of true love in our lives. To me it can only be described as God’s view of my life. It was what had really happened, the real motivations, the truth. Stripped away were my lies to myself that I actually believed, my self-justification, my preference to see myself always in the best light.'[11]

Although the examples of life reviews I have given are situated in a Western context, medical sociologist Allan Kellehear has recently adduced interesting anthropological evidence to suggest that life reviews are not only found in Anglo-European NDE reports. Two studies carried out  in 1990 (of 197 Beijing residents) and 1992 (of 81 survivors of the 1976 Tangshan earthquake) also confirmed the occurrence of life reviews in Chinese contexts. The same appears to be true in India, where the form taken by such reviews is however different; Indian accounts apparently tend to take the form of a reading of the life record of the experiencer (in accordance with Hindu belief). In Thailand, life reviews are reported as occurring in the presence of supernatural beings (Yama, Lord of the Underworld, and his servants the Yamatoots. The life review does not however seem to be found in African, Native American, Australian Aboriginal or Pacific  NDEs. Whether this should be attributed to the relatively small amounts of research in these areas or, as Kellehear thought-provokingly argues, to differing notions of the self and moral accountability in such cultures is a matter of conjecture (see Janice Holden, Bruce Greyson, Debbie James (eds), The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences: Thirty Years of Investigation, 139-141, 152-154).

Towards a possible interpretation

How then can we interpret the phenomenon of the NDE life review given both the overwhelming structural similarities between accounts on one hand and on the other a certain sense that the experience is not only subsequently expressed in the context of the experiencer’s cultural matrix but also ‘tailor-made’ to suit the individual in question? This would seem to require much more interrogation of the data, but the most credible model is perhaps one that involves the notion of the life review as a ‘feedback loop’ (a concept advanced by celebrated NDEr Mellen-Thomas Benedict) that reflects the experiencer’s subjectivity and cultural background. Such a model also however needs to allow for the possibility that the Divine may ‘accommodate’ itself to the experiential categories of the NDEr for the pedagogical purposes that seem to be an integral part of NDE accounts. In other words, the encounter with a Being of Light present during a life review is no mere ‘projection’ generated by an individual’s psychology, but neither do we seem to be talking about an ‘objectifiable’ free-standing reality which reveals itself in precisely the same way to all who encounter it.

In comparison with the serious work over several decades into near-death experience carried out by some of the researchers referenced above, the public discussions hosted by Rachel Held Evans and Tony Jones (both of whose blogs I admire more generally, I should add) on the subject of near-death experience reports have unfortunately proved depressingly if predictably superficial. To reduce the issue to whether Don Piper ‘really’ – whatever that is supposed to mean in relation to non-bodily consciousness – spent 90 minutes in heaven or whether Colton Burpo’s perhaps hastily-ridiculed vision of Jesus with a ‘rainbow horse’ in Heaven is for Real (of which the most balanced appraisal I have yet found has been penned by Bruce Epperly here) is ‘compatible with Scripture’ is to trivialize a subject with potentially huge implications for the way in which we perceive both science and spirituality.

Colton-Burpo-cover

I cannot help feeling that a more productive conversation might have ensued had the question under consideration been the role of the life review in NDE reports, which in the estimation of Jeffrey Long (whose recent Evidence of the After-Life constitutes the most ambitious survey of NDE accounts yet published), appears to be the element of the near-death experience with the greatest subsequent impact on the lives of survivors, ‘by far the greatest catalyst for change.'[12]  It is also perhaps the most resistant to any kind of reductionist approach due to the richness of its informational and ethical dimension. Indeed, even if it could be conclusively demonstrated that, say, inter-ictal discharges in the hippocampus or amygdala are capable of generating hallucinations as coherent as a panoramic life review[13], this would in itself do nothing to explain the extraordinary empathic content and sense of compassionate judgment found in accounts such as that of Howard Storm. Experienced meaning is not something reducible to changes in brain states; it rather requires assessment on a different explanatory plane. To use a musical parallel, no evidence of an endorphin surge while composing would ‘explain’ the epiphanic dimension of the Adagio of the Ninth Symphony of Anton Bruckner (a real musical ‘near-death experience’ if ever there was one)[14].   Looking to understand neural correlates of transcendent experience is certainly a valid area of research, but to look to chemical causation to explicate an encounter with unconditional Divine love is simply to make a category mistake.

I would therefore invite those who have commented on RHE’s and TJ’s blogs, as well as to those who weighed in during the recent controversy over NDE research at http://www.salon.com between Mario Beauregard and PZ Myers, to read a few accounts of life reviews such as those of Howard Storm or Steven Fanning (the more the better, as the evidence starts to stack up after a while), and then tell me what they think is going on.

_________________________

NOTES

[1] Howard Storm, My Descent into Death: a Second Chance at Life (New York: Doubleday, 2006), 24.

[2] Ibid., 28.

[3] Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: A Study of the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness (Methuen, 1912), 299.

[4] In another re-telling of his story, Storm remarks: ‘My life was shown in a way that I had never thought of before. All of the things that I had worked to achieve, the recognition that I had worked for, in elementary school, in high school, in college, and in my career, they meant nothing in this setting.[…]I got to see when my sister had a bad night one night, how I went into her bedroom and put my arms around her. Not saying anything, I just lay there with my arms around her. As it turned out that experience was one of the biggest triumphs of my life.’ (reprinted on-line at http://familytreemaker.genealogy.com/users/v/o/n/Gottfried-H-Von-sponneck/FILE/0003page.html )
[5] Terence Nichols of the University of St Thomas concurs in his perceptive and balanced chapter on near-death experience in his recent Death and Afterlife: A Theological Introduction ‘How does this peculiar element of NDEs relate to the individual or the last judgment? Certainly it is not the last or final judgment, in which we seee our lives in the context of all of human history. Rather, it seems to be a foretaste or a preview of the individual judgment – it is a judgment by one’s own conscience, after all – but in the light of a loving being’ (Death and Afterlife: A Theological Introduction (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2011), 201n.). An interesting Jewish interpretation of the life review in Talmudic categories can be found at http://www.innernet.org.il/article.php?aid=299

[6] Storm, My Descent into Death, 30.
[7] Huston Smith, ‘Intimations of Mortality: Three Case Studies’, Harvard Divinity School Bulletin, Winter 2001-2002, 12-16 (available online at  http://www.theisticscience.org/spirituality/DivBull2002winter-Smith.pdf ).

[8] Ibid.. Dutch cardiologist Pim van Lommel, author of an important study of cardiac arrest patients in the Netherlands, describes the same phenomenon in non-religious terms: ‘All of life, from birth up until the present moment, can be relived as a spectator and as an actor. This makes it much more than a speeded-up film. People know their own and others’ past thoughts and feelings because they have a connection with the memories and emotions of others. During a life review people experience the effects of their thoughts, words, and actions on other people when they originally occurred, and they also get a sense of whether love has been shared or withheld’ (Pim van Lommel, Consciousness Beyond Life: the Science of the Near-Death Experience (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 35). The NDE literature abounds with such examples, e.g. Sandra Rogers (following a suicide attempt by gunshot in 1976): http://www.near-death.com/experiences/suicide03.html or David Oakford (after a drugs overdose in 1979): http://www.near-death.com/oakford.html

[9] Kenneth Ring and Evelyn Elsaesser-Valarino, Lessons from the Light: what we can learn from the near-death experience (Needham, MA: Moment Point Press, 2006), 157-8. Emphasis original. Sawyer’s own account of his life review, which does not include the incident related by Ring but does describe the review in terms of a similar triple perspective to that mentioned by Fanning, can be read at http://www.near-death.com/experiences/reincarnation03.html A further arresting life review not dissimilar to that of Howard Storm can be found in the case of another former atheist, Barbara Whitfield, http://www.aciste.org/index.php/integrationaccounts?id=71

[10] Ibid., 161-2. Emphasis original. Ring’s interpretation is close to that of British philosopher David Lorimer’s notion of ’empathetic resonance’, the conviction that the Golden Rule is not merely an ethical exhortation but an expression of the fundamental interconnectedness of all reality. See also Bruce Greyson, ‘Near-Death Experiences and Spirituality’ in Zygon, 41/2 (Summer 2006), 393-414:404. I have commented elsewhere on the way in which contemporary scientific work on mirror or ‘Gandhi’ neurons (V.S. Ramachandran) appears to be revealing that even in our corporeal existence we quite literally have the capacity to feel the pain of others. See Peter Bannister, ‘The Return of Spirit: Christian theology and consciousness research’, available online at www.peterjohnbannister.com/TheReturnofSpirit.pdf

[11] Huston Smith, ‘Intimations of Mortality’, 14.

[12] Jeffrey Long and Paul Perry, Evidence of the Afterlife: the Science of Near-Death Experiences (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 110.

[13] This is the suggestion made by Jason J. Braithwaite in the article ‘Towards a Cognitive Neuroscience of the Dying Brain. An in-depth analysis and critique of the survivalists’ neuroscience of near-death experience’ (Skeptic Magazine 21/2 (Summer 2008)).

[14] The choice of Bruckner for this illustration is deliberate; as the conductor Sergiu Celibidache remarked late in life,  “To him, time is different than it is to other composers. To a normal man, time is what comes after the beginning. To Bruckner, time is what comes after the end. All his apotheotical finals, the hope for another world, the hope of being saved, of being again baptised in light, it exists nowhere else in the same manner”. Quoted in http://www.mtosmt.org/issues/mto.98.4.5/mto.98.4.5.james.html . Emphasis mine.

Kenotic logic: Cynthia Bourgeault and Gavin Bryars

As those of you who come to this blog via our front page www.sdgmusic.org probably already know, next week is going to be an intense one for SOLI DEO GLORIA, with three of our newly-commissioned works being sung for the first time. In addition they will all be coming to life on British soil, which curiously represents fresh territory in terms of SDG’s activity in the area of New Music. On Thursday May 10th the Grammy-nominated Danish vocal ensemble Ars Nova Copenhagen be giving the first performances of pieces by living legend Gavin Bryars (Psalm 141) and myself (the choral cycle Spiritus divinae lucis gloriae) at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival in Wales, while three days later the choir of Westminster Catholic Cathedral in London will be singing a fascinating new English/Hebrew setting of Psalm 135/136 by Roxanna Panufnik during Sunday Vespers.

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Westminster Cathedral

I will certainly be reporting back on what should be an exciting few days, but before I head off in the direction of the Eurotunnel some equally serious business is afoot here in Paris on Monday, when I will have the privilege of conducting a radio interview on Fréquence Protestante with Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault, one of the most compelling contemporary writers and presenters working in the area of contemplative Christian spirituality. An Episcopal priest who spends much of the year at the Trappist hermitage on Eagle Island, Maine, Rev. Bourgeault is currently in France and will be speaking at the American Church in Paris on May 10. I had already known her work for some time through some captivating audio-visual footage of her presentations on Centering Prayer as well as her daring yet consistently responsible re-appraisal of the relevance of Mary Magdalene (the subject of her book The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity) for the Church in a post-Da Vinci Code era. What I did not realize, however, until I began to do some a little exploration of her page at http://www.contemplative.org/cynthia.html in preparation for Monday’s interview, is that Cynthia Bourgeault is also a trained musicologist of impeccable pedigree, having studied here in France with none other than Nadia Boulanger. Not only that, but she also has a keen interest in New Music, having collaborated with the Aspen composer Ray Vincent Adams in creating a musical Passion setting to which she contributed the libretto .

Those interested in exploring Cynthia’s work will find a rich variety of resources on her web page, including a moving tribute to one of our mutual spiritual heroes, Brother Roger of Taizé and a thought-provoking series of ‘observations and reflections on the Future of Church’ (written in dialogue with Christopher Page); the issues on which she touches with great creativity are so wide-ranging that I feel a little daunted by the task of restricting our broadcast conversation on Monday to a mere 25 minutes!  There is a well-nigh infinite range of topics we could discuss, but I suppose that if I had to focus on one key question it would be this – what is the significance of the re-discovery of the contemplative tradition not only for the Church but for our contemporary Western civilization, and why is this re-discovery happening at the present time? It is certainly a remarkable phenomenon that over the last few decades, an increasing number of people (including myself) have been drawn to the notion that the spiritual way forward for the West lies at least partially in ressourcement, a retrieval of ‘the sources’ of ancient Judeo-Christian spirituality (in which, as Thomas Merton and others such as Huston Smith and Harvey Cox have pointed out for a long time, many points of contact are to be found with the world’s other great wisdom traditions). Lest there be any misunderstanding here,  I am not speaking about some archaizing, anti-scientific retreat into dogmatic religious certainties in the face of the perceived godlessness of late modernity. It may surprise some who associate monasticism with a quaint nostalgia for a distant bygone era to discover that Cynthia Bourgeault’s work is peppered with allusions to quantum physics and contemporary neuroscience. Such references are doubtless bound to raise the blood pressure of proponents of a reductionistic scientism such as the polemical blogger PZ Myers, whose current undignified spat with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard (co-author of The Spiritual Brain)  over at www.salon.com is indicative of a skeptical mindset for which any rapprochement between science and spirituality is anathema. The parallels which Cynthia draws however definitely resonate with folks such as myself who view the idea of a remorseless struggle between science and faith as a socio-historical construct rather than a logical necessity, and who are convinced that we are currently witnessing the gradual emergence of new non-materialistic paradigms within science (pioneered by figures such as Beauregard) which will be far more amenable to dialogue with the world’s great faith traditions than is widely believed.

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Although Cynthia Bourgeault’s writing and speaking on Centering Prayer is intimately linked to spiritual practice, it would be a mistake to think that her prime concern is the propagation of a set of meditative techniques; I would prefer to see her work more broadly in terms of passionate advocacy of the importance for our society of recovering a contemplative attitude towards reality.  This stance, founded on an awareness of the inter-connectedness of creation’s participation in transcendental goodness, beauty and truth, is antithetical to the logic of domination that has marked so much of Western rationalistic thought since the Enlightenment, supremely expressed in the apotheosis of technology (Jacques Ellul’s système technique, a dualistic scheme in which an all-powerful human subject triumphs over lifeless matter). Such exclusionary binary thinking is marked by an inherent violence whose consequences for human community and the planet more generally are becoming ever more apparent. This, one might say, is the manifestation of the egoistic, aggressive chimp in all of us whom we so often fail to humanize (one of Cynthia Bourgeault’s choice expressions borrowed from Buddhist terminology is ‘monkey mind’) . A central contention of eminent modern contemplatives such as Cynthia Bourgeault and Richard Rohr is that this mentality – the source of many of our individual and social tensions – needs to be overcome by ‘non-dual’, holistic thought and living.  To the extent that this transition can only come about by a renunciation of the ego’s desire to dominate others and the world, it requires a kenotic stance of self-emptying spoken of in many religious traditions, but for Christians supremely exhibited in the  life of the Rabbi of Nazareth whose path Henri Nouwen famously called the ‘way of downward mobility’.

Which brings me to Gavin Bryars.

I sometimes ask myself what would be my top five pieces of sacred ‘classical’ music of the last fifty years. My truly indispensable Desert Island Discs (only one per composer allowed here). Olivier Messiaen would have to be onboard, although I’d be hard pressed to choose between La Transfiguration, Des Canyons aux Etoiles and St François d’Assise. At least one of Arvo Pärt’s masterpieces would surely also have to be in there (I’m spoilt for choice here – Como una cierva?, La Sindone? Perhaps Kanon Pokajanen, or maybe Tabula Rasa despite its lack of an overtly ‘sacred title’?). Steve Reich’s Tehillim would probably make it into the top five from the Jewish side, and I would be strongly inclined to take some Gorecki with me (Symphony n.2 or 3? Beatus Vir? Lerchenmusik?). Alfred Schnittke’s Choir Concerto, Sofia Gubaidulina’s Offertorium and Jean-Louis Florentz’s haunting Laudes for organ would all be strong contenders for inclusion. But one piece I cannot imagine not taking with me to any Desert Island would be Jesus’ blood never failed me yet by Gavin Bryars. Or, to be more precise, by Gavin Bryars and the unidentified ‘tramp’ whose singing is immortalized in this unique, unforgettable piece.

Gavin-Bryars-Jesus-blood-1993-300x295On Bryars’ website you can find the now legendary story of how Jesus’ blood never failed me yet came into being as the composer was toying with some discarded tape from a documentary film about the London homeless made with his friend Alan Power in 1971. Making a tape loop out of a religious song sung by one of the film’s interviewees – not an alcoholic, it should be noted in passing – , Bryars took the reel for copying to the Fine Arts Department at Leicester Polytechnic (now De Montfort University) where he was working. There he noticed something quite unexpected:

‘The door of the recording room opened on to one of the large painting studios and I left the tape copying, with the door open, while I went to have a cup of coffee. When I came back I found the normally lively room unnaturally subdued. People were moving about much more slowly than usual and a few were sitting alone, quietly weeping. I was puzzled until I realised that the tape was still playing and that they had been overcome by the old man’s singing.’

This extraordinary reaction, with which almost anyone who has heard Jesus’ blood will surely empathize, persuaded Bryars to write ‘a simple, though gradually evolving, orchestral accompaniment that respected the tramp’s nobility and simple faith’, the result being ‘an eloquent, but understated testimony to his spirit and optimism’.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to give a verbal description of the impact of the tramp’s song (‘Jesus’ blood never failed me yet … this one thing I know, for he loves me so’) on the listener, but if any piece of music merits the word ‘kenotic’, it is surely has to be this one. Here I am not merely talking of the tramp’s material poverty; for those of a religious persuasion, the combination of simplicity and brokenness to be found in his singing encapsulates the pure faith of the ‘poor in spirit’, while even many who do not share the tramp’s belief still find themselves overwhelmed by the sound of the elderly man’s voice as somehow epitomizing the human condition. Moreover, Jesus’ blood is also ‘kenotic’ from the viewpoint of the composer (who, intriguingly, was at the time primarily interested in Zen Buddhism, having become disillusioned as a student with the Congregationalist faith in which he had been raised[1]); the artistic success of the work derives in large measure from Bryars’ own receptivity to his objet trouvé and sensitivity to the inflections of the voice, which the piece follows sympathetically without ever seeking to manipulate, simply allowing it to be itself. This kind of artistic renunciation, the refusal to view composition as an act of imposition of the will on the musical material, sometimes termed spiritual minimalism – which Arvo Pärt, Henryk Gorecki and Valentin Silvestrov also all remarkably discovered independently of one another in the early 1970s – would seem to be the very stuff of contemplative, non-dual thinking. It might in addition be said that this music also requires a ‘kenotic’ attitude from the listener, who needs to let go of the intellectual gratification associated with strongly directional musical form and expectations of ‘development’; appreciating a piece such as Jesus’ blood does not so much require analysis as surrender.

I am perhaps not alone when I say that there are days in which I feel incapable of listening to any music other than Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, either in its original 1975 version or the extended treatment of 1993 featuring Tom Waits. Interestingly, the closest approximation I know to it is the repetitive prayer music written by the French organist Jacques Berthier for the Taizé Community (a subject on which Cynthia Bourgeault offers some thoughtful insights in her book The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind–A New Perspective on Christ and His Message), which at times bears a very strong aural resemblence to a tape loop. I vividly recall being part of a choir singing the refrain Spiritus Jesu Christi, Spiritus caritatis for a full 25 minutes at the Taizé European meeting in Wroclaw, Poland in 1989 – the same length as the 1975 recording of Jesus’ blood never failed me yet. Structured in a strangely similar manner to Gavin Bryars’ work and often communicating the same sense of timelessness, the music of Taizé is shot through, like the singing of the nameless elderly London tramp, with the spirit of the First Beatitude, as it is put in the words of one of Berthier’s most disarmingly simple canons:

Confiance du coeur, source de richesse. Jésus, donne-nous un coeur de pauvre

[Trust of the heart, source of riches. Jesus, give us poverty of heart]

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Brother Roger of Taizé (1915-2005). Photo: Sabine Leutenegger

Peter Bannister and Rev. Scott Herr in conversation with Cynthia Bourgeault on Fréquence Protestante: ACP Today with Cynthia Bourgeault (click for audio: interview begins at 7:00)

Details of her presentation at the American Church in Paris can be found at http://www.acparis.org/thurber-thursdays/438-the-rev-dr-cynthia-bourgeault-speaks-at-thurber-thursday-and-the-annual-spring-retreat-for-adults

Further information about the Ars Nova Copenhagen concert featuring Gavin Bryars’ new setting of Psalm 141 and Peter Bannister’s Spiritus divinae lucis gloriae can be found at http://valeofglamorganfestival.org.uk/concerts/ars-nova-copenhagen/

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[1] A fascinating interview with Gavin Bryars discussing his Church upbringing and ongoing relationship with Christian spirituality (as well as Zen) can be found at http://www.gavinbryars.com/work/writing/occasional-writings/choral-music-re-questions