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

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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

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Squaring up over religion

Intelligence-Squared-logo

So it’s official. ‘Religion’ has lost. Or so it was announced at the end of a much-publicized Intelligence Squared debate held last week at NYU, to which a friend alerted me a few days ago. The case for and against the motion ‘the world would be better off without religion’ had just been argued by the atheist philosopher A.C. Grayling and Darwin’s great-great-grandson Matthew Chapman on one side  and on the other by renowned Christian apologist Dinesh D’Souza and America’s ‘n.1 pulpit Rabbi’ David Wolpe. It has to be said that prior to the debate, a poll had already established that 52% of the audience were in favour of the motion and 26% against, so the voters were hardly neutral to begin with, but by the end these figures had moved to 59% and 31% respectively. According to Intelligence Squared‘s rules, this 7% increase in support on the side of the atheists as against 5% for their opponents meant victory for Grayling and Chapman as an affirmation that their case had been made more persuasively (whether my compatriots’ apparent success should be put down to their British accents is a question that I won’t even attempt to tackle here!).

I found watching the debate (which can be viewed on http://www.fora.tv) instructive and frustrating in equal measure. Although in general both sides tried to preserve a measure of decorum in their presentations, the British secular humanists’ picture of religion was very much the New Atheist caricature, characterizing persons of faith as superstitious, anti-scientific obscurantists manipulated by their parents and other authority figures into espousing all kinds of violent, misogynistic and homophobic beliefs legitimated by ancient sacred texts. Somewhat depressingly, against the notion that they were simply attacking fundamentalism rather than religion per se , Grayling and Chapman contended that it is the fanatics who are the true religious believers, whereas their more moderate counterparts are merely hypocritical ‘cherry-pickers’ who are dishonest towards their foundational texts (here D’Souza’s important point that a non-literal reading of the Mosaic Law was already integral to the practice of the early Church and therefore internal to the Biblical text seems to have fallen on deaf ears).

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AC Grayling at the 2010 Global Atheist Convention

Against this D’Souza’s and Wolpe’s chief argument, namely that a fair appraisal of the habits of religious practitioners reveals them to be among the more generous, altruistic and compassionate members of society proved to be of no avail. Neither did the theists cut much ice with their assertion that atheism has at least as inglorious a record as theism when it comes to crimes against humanity, particularly when it comes to the twentieth century. In effect, Grayling’s and Chapman’s description of the essence of religious practice in our world carried the day. Indeed, I would have to say that if I accepted their terms of reference in defining faith (which I don’t, of course, as otherwise there would be no reason for me to be involved with Soli Deo Gloria) I would probably have voted with them. After all, if that is what religion is all about – i.e. oppressive ideology, by which standard dogmatic atheism or political totalitarianisms of Right and Left certainly must count as ‘religions’, then perhaps the question should rather be: ‘Would Faith be better off without Religion?’ To which advocates of Bonhoeffer’s ‘religionless Christianity’ such as Peter Rollins or those who like Jacques Ellul (La subversion du christianisme) Harvey Cox (The Future of Faith), Gianni Vattimo (After Christianity) or René Girard see Christian faith as concerned with unmasking ‘religion’ in the negative sense would surely answer with a resounding ‘yes’, and they would to a great extent have my sympathy.

In thinking of whether D’Souza and Wolpe could have done anything more to sway opinions in the auditorium, I find myself having mixed feelings. On one hand they made an admirable attempt to distance themselves from fundamentalism and religious particularism (D’Souza for example acknowledging the Islamic contribution to world civilization and Rabbi Wolpe being extremely gracious in holding the Christian relief organization World Vision up as a paragon of humanitarian engagement). On the other hand, I am not so sure of the tactical wisdom of a primarily ‘utilitarian’ defense of religion as making better citizens than secular humanism; here I had the impression that the atheists had a case in contending that the non-religious are just as capable of empathy and service of neighbour as their religious counterparts, and was left feeling less than satisfied by the two sides’ wrangling over sociological statistics. I was also made rather nervous by D’Souza’s efforts – not unlike those found in his What’s so great about Christianity – to relativize the behaviour of the Church in episodes such as the Salem witchtrials (reports of which were greatly exaggerated, he argued) and even more so the rôle of Christians in the Third Reich. His assertion that Hitler ultimately had a radically anti-Christian agenda is certainly correct, but his contention that the Church refused the notion of an Aryan Christ is not borne out by the sad facts of the 1930s, as anyone familiar with the work not only of Jewish scholars such as Susannah Heschel but also the accounts of Christians such as Eberhard Bethge (in his massive biography of  Bonhoeffer) will attest. There is no getting away from the unpalatable truths that i) the official Deutsche Christen allied to the Nazi State represented the majority option within Protestantism, particularly in the early years of the Third Reich ii) that Hitlerian anti-Semitism built quite deliberately on the rabid anti-Jewish polemics of Luther’s late writings such as Von schem Hamphoras and iii) that most of those who actually implemented the Final Solution had been baptized as Christians. In this context, a better defence of Christianity is surely offered by gestures of repentance and acknowledgement of moral responsibility than any attempt to relativize the evidence of history, especially when the historiography employed is less than watertight.

Perhaps the most compelling case for the defence was made in Rabbi Wolpe’s eloquent summing-up, during which he appealed to the explicitly religious hope which keeps countless thousands alive in the midst of seemingly unalterable circumstances which might otherwise cause them to despair. Had the debate continued, I am fairly sure that this would have been countered by the philosophers as merely further evidence of the accuracy of the Marxist analysis of religion as the ‘opium of the people’; it is interesting to wonder whether D’Souza and Wolpe might have rebutted this with appeals to empirically verifiable, this-worldly examples of the transformative power of hope, where faith has clearly acted as anything but a narcotic (Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Heschel in the Civil Rights movement, perhaps, or the Solidarity Trade Union in Poland?). Although the voters were evidently unimpressed by this appeal to hope, one person who thought otherwise seems to have been the moderator, ABC newsman John Donvan. In a remark to Slate commentator Elizabeth Weingarten, he registered his surprise at the outcome, feeling that ‘Wolpe and D’Souza’s arguments had more blood, sweat and sinew in them’. ‘They were are arguing that it would be a bleaker world’, he noted, ‘and to some degree, I did feel like I was hearing about a bleaker world from the side that won.'[1]

What was surprisingly missing from the theistic arguments – although I admit that it is doubtful whether it could have been accommodated within the limited timeframe of the debate – was any attempt to make a coherent argument for religious belief on the grounds of its truth, regardless of how badly that truth may have been embodied by the world’s religions throughout history. It may have been emphasized at the outset that the motion did not primarily concern the existence of God, but given that Matthew Chapman was quite forthright in putting forward the view that religion arises from ‘superstitious fear and delusion’, some effort to show that belief in a Deity is not necessarily false would surely have been legitimate self-defence, even in an intellectual climate which is (understandably) somewhat hostile to propositional apologetics. Here if anywhere would have been the place to raise the issue of a ‘depth dimension’ of human existence which cannot be explained away by genetics and sociobiology – of the irreducibility of ‘mind’ to ‘brain’, the experience of moral freedom, of value and beauty which many of us cannot simply dismiss as groundless. A transcendent dimension which humans have intuited in their encounter with death ever since the cave paintings of Lascaux.

And here we transition to the realm of aesthetics, on which the debate only touched tangentially when Grayling and D’Souza briefly skirmished about the Church’s patronage of the arts. The British philosopher seemed generally appreciative of the great architecture of the Middle Ages, but asserted that the real breakthrough for human culture came with the Renaissance’s revival of pagan antiquity (obscured, obviously in this narrative, by the Church’s wilful obscurantism during the millenium following the demise of Rome), as this led to a new and liberating affirmation of the integrity of the purely human.

Much could of course be written at this point in terms of a corrective to this simplistic narrative, but what is regrettable is the clear ‘either-or’ dichotomy in Grayling’s mind between transcendence and immanence, which assumes that the affirmation of the former requires the denial of the latter (and vice versa). The idea of a genuine Judeo-Christian humanism seems not to occur to him as a possibility. Yet it is here that the tradition of Western sacred art-music tells a wholly different story. What of the incarnational fusion of intensely human expression and worship of the divine that we find in Monteverdi’s Vespers, the elevation toccatas of Frescobaldi, Handel’s He shall feed his flock or Mozart’s Et incarnatus est, Bruckner’s Christus factus est, Messiaen’s Trois Petites Liturgies or Arvo Pärt’s La Sindone? I would like to think that I am not the only one to suspect that the Intelligence Squared debate might have turned out rather differently had the opposers of the motion simply stopped arguing and instead ended by playing Bach’s Erbarme dich from the St Matthew Passion. Would the world be better off without religion? It all depends what you mean. Without the rampaging worshippers of Odin, the Ku Klux Klan and the Lord’s Resistance Army? Yes, absolutely. But without this music?

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Manuscript ending of the aria ‘Geduld’ in J.S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion

[1] http://intelligencesquaredus.org/wp-content/uploads/slate-111611.pdf

Sacred art or ersatz worship?

Last week, waking up after the performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion conducted by John Nelson at the Festival de Saint-Denis, I found an intriguing message in my email box, quoting three remarks by a four year-old girl in the United States, who had watched the concert on the internet via Medici TV’s live webcast. The first comment was on baritone Stephen Morscheck singing the part of Jesus: ‘He sounds like Captain Hook’. Well, I guess we can forgive that one. The second concerned the conductor, as our young viewer was unconvinced by her mother’s explanation of the necessity of his role in setting a tempo and shaping the flow of the musical discourse: ‘Well, he should just show them once, and then they musicians could just do it on their own.’ Now there’s a debate that will run and run, as various conductorless orchestras beginning with the Russian Persimfans ensemble in the 1920s through to the Orpheus and Australian Chamber Orchestras today have attempted to dispense with the maestro with varying degrees of success. But the comment which really fascinated me was the one which our pre-schooler made watching the audience file into the historic St-Denis Basilica: ‘the people have come to hear about God’. Really? On one level I am inclined towards scepticism. Two days before, wandering into the church prior to the first orchestral rehearsal just as Sunday evening Mass was beginning, I was not the only one to be struck by the fact that over half the chairs in the basilica were turned away from the altar towards the concert platform at the West end of the building, while in the chancel there were perhaps 20-30 people present for the liturgy. Not many coming to hear about God over there…

Saint-Denis Basilica

Is sacred music a form of ersatz worship, as some cynics claim? All too often I have heard the complaint that all that is left of ‘Christendom’ is a great artistic heritage which now constitutes little more than a set of museum artifacts as incomprehensible to the general public as Egyptian hieroglyphics, given that society has completely lost contact with the religious symbolism and narrative on which such art is based. According to this logic, we are deceiving ourselves if we believe that the fact that the Basilica was full for the performance of the St Matthew Passion means anything at all on a spiritual level. The sceptics are only too ready to proclaim that the public is merely there to consume a luxury product like any other, one that was once the living expression of a vibrant Christian culture but which is now nothing more than a beautiful but meaningless relic. Indeed, there are some who would tell us that it is only once even those relics have disappeared that we will be lulled out of a false sense of security and finally wake up to the seriousness of the spiritual situation around us, from which it follows logically that it might be best if classical sacred music were simply allowed to die.

And yet my theological as well as artistic instinct tells me that naïveté of the four year-old is in some ways nearer to the truth than the hard-boiled sociology of sacred music’s cultured despisers. Yes, we are clearly living at a time in Western Europe of considerable alienation from the institutional Church, a phenomenon whose roots I have been trying to probe in my series of posts entitled ‘Spirituality in and out of focus’. Contrary to many media reports there are powerful signs of renewal (I was recently at a vibrant Eucharistic celebration in my local Catholic parish attended by over 1000 people from across the ethnic and socio-economic spectrum), yet we should be under no illusions; vast swathes of the population react allergically to our preaching, are deeply suspicious of our Scriptures and find our liturgies at best exotic, at worst irrelevant. And yet it is my personal experience that they may well cross the threshold of the Church for a concert of sacred music. Their motivation may be mixed – the couple in front of me at the St-Denis performance giggled their way through Part One of the Passion and left at the interval -, but the fact remains that a large audience paid not inconsiderable sums of money to sit through three hours of demanding music, as dense as many a sermon or theological lecture, most following the libretto intensely. For them, so it would seem, this was no mere entertainment.

What is going on here? In his ‘Letter to Artists’ of 1999, Pope John Paul II suggested that it is precisely at a time of great secularization that the arts acquire a particular significance in reminding society of the transcendent openness and innate spiritual quest of the human being:

‘the Church has not ceased to nurture great appreciation for the value of art as such. Even beyond its typically religious expressions, true art has a close affinity with the world of faith, so that, even in situations where culture and the Church are far apart, art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience. In so far as it seeks the beautiful, fruit of an imagination which rises above the everyday, art is by its nature a kind of appeal to the mystery. Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.’

In the secular Western European landscape it can be argued that the undisputed masterpieces of sacred art such as Bach’s St Matthew Passion, as the repository of Christian humanism at its most profound, have become more important than ever. The case of Bach seems very telling: the Lutheran culture generating his peerless body of work seems to have disappeared from the historic Protestant European heartlands (Germany and Scandinavia) just as spectacularly as Catholicism in France, and yet Bach’s music – as a distillation of the best of Christian tradition – has somehow survived. It moreover remains contemporary in a way that a museum exhibit cannot, for a number of reasons. Firstly, a musical score, like a work of literature, is a pattern of information rather than a chunk of matter; it is not subject to the ravages of time as that pattern is infinitely reproducible and does not decay with the paper on which it was originally inscribed. At the same time, inbuilt into the very fabric of a piece such as the St Matthew Passion is the need for actualization, translation into sound through an act of performance unfolding in real-time, meaning that Bach’s works can be experienced today as a living aural reality. The principal reason for the survival of this music, however, is surely that while rooted in the specific historical narrative of the New Testament and Bach’s own cultural location, it simultaneously gives us a glimpse of a transcendent eternal reality of Beauty, Goodness and Truth. As the great Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, perhaps the foremost living composer of sacred music, remarked in 1968 while still living in a Soviet Union relentlessly hostile to Christianity, Bach cannot simply be relegated to history (even by the You Tube viewing figures for Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga, one might add):

‘Many art objects of the past appear to be more contemporary than our present art. How do we explain it? […] I think the modernity of Bach’s music will not vanish in another two hundred years, and perhaps never will […] the secret to its contemporaneity resides in the question: How thoroughly has the author-composer perceived, not his own present, but the totality of life, its joys, worries and mysteries?

Two pages from the fair copy of J.S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion BWV 244 (1736)

And this is where the great sacred masterworks of the past can and surely must serve as an inspiration for the future. In his letter, John Paul II re-iterated his belief in the continued action of the Holy Spirit in the conviction that present-day artistic creativity has its roots in the Divine creativity that brought our universe into being:

‘The Spirit is the mysterious Artist of the universe. Looking to the Third Millennium, I would hope that all artists might receive in abundance the gift of that creative inspiration which is the starting-point of every true work of art.

Dear artists, you well know that there are many impulses which, either from within or from without, can inspire your talent. Every genuine inspiration, however, contains some tremor of that “breath” with which the Creator Spirit suffused the work of creation from the very beginning.’

It is both humbling and inspiring  for a composer of faith to recall these words. For all the stylistic differences between the works of Palestrina, Bach, Bruckner, Franck, Messiaen or Arvo Pärt (just to mention art-music in the classical tradition), we can – if we pay sufficient attention – feel the breathing of the one Holy Spirit in them all across boundaries of time and space. Yes, the St Matthew Passion does leave me speechless and dumbfounded, as there is something almost inexplicably miraculous in the sheer level of inspiration, range and intellectual mastery running through its 68 movements. Yes, it may well be that Bach’s incredible achievement will never be equalled: somehow JSB’s own statement that anyone who worked as hard as he did could do the same is a little hard to believe. But that doesn’t mean that contemporary composers shouldn’t be willing to try, to fail boldly -after all, there is no reason why the same Spirit who infused Bach’s work should not be blowing in the artistic world of today, and it is my experience that the Paraclete is indeed at work in our times through the arts in sometimes bewildering yet profound and powerful ways.

I know from many recent conversations that this sense is shared by many European Christians from Lisbon to St Petersburg who find themselves hovering between excitement and discouragement. Their vision of what could be is tempered by the reality of what is (just yesterday I for example saw a headline proclaiming the imminent disappearance of the Church of England); their enthusiasm for the cause is frequently dampered by geographical isolation, disillusionment with the music profession, lukewarm reception within the Church, and by severely limited resources which prevent their creativity from flourishing not merely for the benefit of communities of faith, but for the common good of believers and unbelievers alike. This is why some of us are convinced that there is a need for the establishment of some kind of network specifically devoted to the realization of projects involving sacred music on this continent, led by those who have a grasp of the particularities of the multiple European cultural situations with their challenges and opportunities, but in conversation with Church circles with serious resources at their disposal, i.e. in North America. There is surely a powerful case to be made for trying connect the great sacred artistic heritage of the past, in whose DNA the Christian tradition somehow remains indelibly engraved, with the energy of contemporary creators seeking to draw upon it and push it in new directions. As I have written before on this blog, there is compelling evidence that remarkable creative initiatives are taking shape along these lines; if many of these are, intriguingly, bubbling up from the ‘periphery’ of Europe (on the ‘Celtic fringe’ or in the ex-Soviet Union), I remain convinced that there is also a potent undercurrent of artistic spirituality waiting to be unleashed in countries such as Germany and France. It is not dead, merely lying dormant, awaiting a revival such as the French renouveau intellectuel catholique of the early twentieth century that produced the writing of Claudel and Bernanos, the paintings of Georges Rouault or the music of Poulenc and Messiaen.

Maybe we would do well to recover the unjaded vision of a four year-old in Illinois watching all this from afar and start believing that the concert audience really has come to hear about God. It may well be that the freshness, generosity, organizational skills and enterprising spirit of North America have a role to play in catalyzing renewal in Western Europe (just as its material reconstruction after World War II would have been unthinkable without the Marshall Plan). We may not yet know what forms such a partnership may take, but it is my intuition if this Transatlantic connection can be nurtured appropriately, then something may well change for good on both sides of the ocean separating our two continents.

Pour la gloire de Dieu et le salut du monde

(For the glory of God and the salvation of the world)