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)

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

Cometh the hour, cometh the man?

Model offered to Pope Leo XIII in 1888 of Aristide Cavaillé-Coll's projected organ for St Peter's Basilica

Model offered to Pope Leo XIII in 1888 of Aristide Cavaillé-Coll’s projected organ for St Peter’s Basilica

OK, so the performing style of the Sistine Chapel Choir might not have been to everyone’s liking (judging by the Facebook comments I saw, some people had the impression they were hearing the Bayreuth chorus singing Parsifal). And whenever I hear the music for large-scale liturgical celebrations at the Vatican, I cannot help regretting that the plans of the great 19th-century French organ-builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll to construct an instrument truly worthy of St Peter’s Basilica never came to fruition. But these musician’s pet peeves aside, there can be little doubt that with yesterday’s inauguration of Pope Francis we were witnessing history in the making.

As has been pointed out by many commentators, Cardinal Bergoglio’s choice of Papal name could not be more resonant. ‘Francis’ carries a unique spiritual cachet that commands immediate attention both inside and outside Roman Catholicism, to such an extent that the choice of the Italian saint’s name by any Cardinal designated for the Petrine office has widely been regarded as off-limits. When my own personal hero Olivier Messiaen decided to write his opera St François d’Assise (a project to which he devoted eight years of his life and a scarcely believable quantity of ink), he did so after first having wanted to write a piece on the life of Christ. Judging that his conscience would not allow him to put God the Son on stage, he opted for Francis out of the belief that he was the figure in Christian history who most clearly mirrored Jesus’s life. That is an opinion which is surely widely shared – for many, the word ‘Francis’ is a synonym for a call to Gospel poverty. For efforts towards reconciliation and peace with Islam. For a responsible theology of Creation and care for the environment. For a call to rebuild the Church.[1]

Only time will tell whether Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s Papacy will live up to the huge expectations created by his momentous choice, but for the moment it is remarkable to see how expressions of support for his election have been coming from some surprising quarters. A recent article in Christianity Today (a magazine catering for a constituency not historically known as favourable to things Roman) entitled ‘Argentine Evangelicals Say Bergoglio as Pope Francis is ‘Answer to Our Prayers’ is a case in point. This comes as especially heartening given that it is no secret that relations between the Catholic Church and Protestants (particularly non-denominational groups) have been strained in recent years in Latin America.

Grotto of Saint Francis, La Verna (photo: Geobia)

Grotto of Saint Francis, La Verna (photo: Geobia)

For musicians, Francis of Assisi is a figure with a special pedigree. I have already mentioned Messiaen, but he is far from being the only composer to have felt an affinity with Franciscan spirituality, a tradition which dates back at least as far as Franz Liszt (although my own compositional catalogue contains no overt references to the saint as yet, I was deeply impacted by my two visits to La Verna, the site of Francis’s reception of the stigmata, where I had the privilege of giving recitals at organ festivals in 1993 and 2004).

Gubaidulina Canticle coverAmong living composers Sofia Gubaidulina, on whose ‘kenotic music’ I have commented elsewhere on this blog, is perhaps the most eminent musical devotee of Il Poverello, having written a large-scale Canticle of the Sun for cello, choir, percussion and celesta dedicated to Mstislav Rostropovitch. Further back in time, another well-known French example is Francis Poulenc, composer of Quatre Petites Prières de Saint François d’Assise, while Messiaen’s own interest in the saint was almost certainly influenced by that of fellow organist Charles Tournemire (1870-1939), an unjustly-neglected figure (to whom I will be returning in future posts) whose importance for the history of French twentieth-century has arguably been considerably under-estimated. Tournemire’s prolific output not only includes the massive liturgical cycle for organ (51 offices totalling 14 hours in playing time!) L’Orgue Mystique , but also eight symphonies – of which the monumental Sixth and Seventh on their own ought to be enough to secure the composer’s place in history, and several oratorios including an Il Poverello di Assisi.

Charles Tournemire, who in later life joined a lay Franciscan order, was not only a composer but a man of immense literary culture and encyclopedic interests. Interestingly,  like many French Catholic intellectuals in the early decades of the last century, he was an avid reader of the writing of the radical pamphleteer and famous pauper Léon Bloy (1846-1917) (whom Tournemire considered a prophet), who was quoted by Pope Francis during his first homily on the day after his election. The new Pontiff’s improvised words have since gone viral on the internet as a possible indication of things to come from the new occupant of the Throne of Peter:

‘We can walk as much we want, we can build many things, but if we do not confess Jesus Christ, nothing will avail. We will become a compassionate NGO, but not the Church, the Bride of Christ. When one does not walk, one stalls. When one does not built on solid rocks, what happens? What happens is what happens to children on the beach when they make sandcastles: everything collapses, it is without consistency. When one does not profess Jesus Christ – I recall the phrase of Leon Bloy – “Whoever does not pray to God, prays to the devil.” When one does not profess Jesus Christ, one professes the worldliness of the devil.’[2]

Léon Bloy, 1887

Léon Bloy, 1887

For those who know anything about Bloy’s life and writings, the new Pope’s quotation of him right at the outset of his Papacy is startling. Not least because Bloy’s reading of history and world events was indelibly stamped by his commitment to the importance of the apparitions of Jesus’s Mother to two French peasant children in the Alpine countryside at La Salette in 1846. For much academic theology today which either ignores such phenomena altogether or sees them as mere superstition, it may seem incongruous that one of France’s foremost writers should have based his life’s work on an uncomprisingly mystical view of reality. This was however clearly not a contradiction for many leading French intellectuals of the early twentieth-century including the playwright Paul Claudel, novelist Georges Bernanos, scholar of Islam Louis Massignon and Bloy’s godson, philosopher Jacques Maritain, all of whom regarded La Salette as being of prime importance.

La Salette

La Salette

There are signs emerging that Pope Francis may well have something in common with Léon Bloy and his intellectual progeny in terms of an openness to Christian mysticism; details have begun to surface from official Vatican sources, reported by eminent ‘Vaticanista’ Robert Moynihan, about Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s personal faith journey which stress the importance of a mystical experience at the age of 17 for his life’s vocation. Furthermore,  Pope Francis has in the recent past not been afraid to associate himself with figures linked to the alleged Marian apparitions in Medjugorje currently under investigation by a Vatican commission headed by Cardinal Ruini. The notion that Cardinal Bergoglio may have shown hospitality to the Medjugorje visionaries (similar to that demonstrated by Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna) may be irritating to some, but it appears to have a basis in documented events during his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires.

To know of this mystically Marian dimension of Pope Francis’s spirituality while also seeing that he has also had relations of unusual institutional warmth with Anglicans and is a personal friend of the famous Protestant evangelist Luis Palau strongly suggests that we are living at a historical juncture when boundaries previously thought impermeable may be breaking down. Which, at a moment in history when the universal Church has both been under attack from aggressive secularization and undermined by internal scandal, ought to be extremely good news. It is also a time at which the potentially explosive idea that God may well be communicating with us not only through ancient Scripture but through contemporary prophetic witness (and the insights of near-death experience reports, many linked to experience of religious conversion) seems to be making a comeback, of which Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s election to the Papacy may well turn out to be a part.[3]

‘Cometh the hour, cometh the man’ ?

The views expressed on ‘Da stand das Meer’ represent the author’s private opinions, not necessarily those of any institution with which he is associated.

NOTES

[1] A good example of the appeal of Francis of Assisi across denominational lines is the acclaimed novel Chasing Francis by Anglican Ian Morgan Cron, which includes testimonials from figures as different as Rowan Williams, Tony Campolo and Richard Rohr.

[2] http://www.news.va/en/news/pope-francis-1st-homily-full-text

[3] The sales figures for books relating near-death experiences suggest that this is something of a social phenomenon. A prime example is Proof of Heaven by former Harvard Medical School neurosurgeon Eben Alexander III, who was featured in Newsweek magazine in October 2012 and who recently appeared at an NDE conference in Marseille. The latest addition to the debate about mystical perception of the ‘supernatural’ is the challenging autobiography of the Greek Orthodox author Vassula Rydén, currently in the US on a book tour, entitled Heaven is Real but So is Hell , of which you can read my review here.