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.


[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.


[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.

Guardians of beauty (2) – Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev


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.


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 . An interview in which he talks about his recent meeting with Pope Benedict XVI can be heard on-line at

For video of a Russian TV broadcast of his St Matthew Passion, see



[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):


[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

Guardians of beauty – James MacMillan in Rome


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

[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

Rowan Williams – End of an era

So, the news is just in that Rowan Williams will be stepping down as Archbishop of Canterbury at the end of this year … Whatever his detractors may say about his tenure and the painful controversies in which he may have found himself entangled (the majority not of his own making), Rowan Williams surely remains one of the giants of contemporary theology. Moving, like NT Wright not long ago, back into the somewhat quieter waters of British academic life (as Master of Magdalene College Cambridge) from the turbulence of Church politics, it is only to be hoped that the loss in terms of leadership of the Anglican Communion will be scholarship’s gain. And who knows – maybe somebody might even be able to persuade him to help out a theologically-minded composer or two as he did as the consultant  for James MacMillan and his librettist Michael Symmons Roberts during the creation of their Parthenogenesis, part of Jeremy Begbie’s Theology Through the Arts project which is now based at Duke University under the name Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts.


For those who are long-time fans of ‘The Bearded One’ (as some of my North American theo-friends refer to him), it is perhaps worth pointing out just some of the rich audio and video resources available on the internet which provide ample evidence that whatever toll his time at Lambeth Palace may have taken on him, Rowan Williams’ theological insight remains both as sharp and as profound as ever:

‘The Finality of Christ in a pluralist world’ – in this lecture given at Guildford Cathedral in 2010, the Archbishop offers what has to rank as one of the most cogent recent suggestions for how to reconcile a robust commitment to the core of historical Christian orthodoxy with an authentic respect for other religious traditions.

‘The Image of Humanity in the Philokalia’ – the 2010 Father Alexander Schmemann Lecture given at St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, NY. A reminder of the extent to which Rowan Williams’ vision has been deeply shaped by the traditions of the Eastern Church (both ancient and modern), as well as of his contribution to the understanding of the Eastern Orthodox heritage in the West.


‘Emerging Church Expression’ – in a quite different vein, a video sampler of the DVD accompanying the highly stimulating Church in the Present Tense: A Candid Look at What’s Emerging by Scot McKnight, Peter Rollins, Kevin Corcoran and Jason Clark (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011). Especially recommended to those who may not know that the Archbishop has for a number of years been one of the staunchest supporters of the Emergent Church in an Anglican context (‘Fresh Expressions’).

‘The nature of human beings and the question of their ultimate origin’ – video of the recent debate moderated by Sir Anthony Kenny between Rowan Williams and Richard Dawkins at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford this February. May disappoint those expecting gladiatorial combat, but is likely to go down in the annals as a model of respectful but substantial engagement between two very different viewpoints about the essential nature of humanity.


On a more personal note, one of the most thought-provoking of the many books by the outgoing Archbishop remains for me his short but grippingly dense series of ‘reflections on art and love’ entitled Grace and Necessity (London: Continuum, 2005), a haunting set of meditations on artistic creativity which probably has more underlinings per page than any virtually other item on my shelves. At a music and spirituality conference at the London South Bank Centre in 2008 I attempted a musical transposition of some of Rowan Williams’ ideas (centred on the thought of the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain) in a paper entitled ‘The Necessity of Grace’. Although some of my comments regarding the post-modern philosophical revival of interest in the via negativa of apophatic theology would probably receive some nuancing were I to update it, I offer the essay to any interested readers here as a pdf for want of any better way to mark what is definitely the end of an era.

Father Alexander Schmemann Memorial Lecture

Fujimura's refracted light

A major discovery for me over the last few days has been the work of the visual artist Makoto Fujimura. I had vaguely heard about the International Arts Movement established by him in New York after my friend and SDG advisory board member Jeremy Begbie made a presentation hosted by IAM in 2007. I recently decided to do a little probing into Fujimura’s work for two reasons. Firstly, I saw his writings constantly quoted by a number of groups involved in the current burgeoning theology-arts dialogue on both sides of the Atlantic. Secondly, SDG’s own Chandler Branch mentioned that he had just attended the launch of Fujimura’s ‘The Four Holy Gospels’ project (see image above) sponsored by Crossway Books, illuminating the English Standard Version of the four canonical gospels in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the appearance of the King James Bible. After watching some captivating video about this remarkable initiative I immediately realized that this was something I would have to investigate further; Fujimura’s comments about the way in which a painter (especially working in an abstract idiom) needs to allow the colours to speak rather than forcing them into pre-determined combinations resonated very strongly with my own sense as a composer of the need to listen to the notes as they ‘tell their own story’ in the course of the compositional process. As I have noted in recent posts on musicians such as Arvo Pärt and Valentin Silvestrov, what Fujimura is articulating seems to relate to a more general re-discovery at the end of modernity of a contemplative artistic tradition that has largely been excised from modern Western culture. The virtues of patience and receptivity, at odds with the prevailing logic of ‘domination of the material’ that has characterized much art since the Enlightenment, are making an avant-garde comeback that is not synonymous with cultural conservatism. Nor is this purely an artistic phenomenon – the re-emergence of what much Christian tradition would term ‘Marian’ values (which have of course always survived in various pockets of Christianity in opposition to prevailing cultural trends) in our time has profound spiritual implications.

‘Find what you must obey’

The analogy between the creative process and the life of faith is the central theme of Archbishop Rowan Williams magisterial Grace and Necessity, a compelling series of ‘reflections on art and love’ published in 2005. Drawing on the novels of Dostoevsky and Flannery O’Connor, the work of Anglo-Welsh artist/writer David Jones as well as on Williams’ own experience as a published poet, Grace and Necessity is undergirded by the exploration of the nature of creative intuition by French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, one of Fujimura’s formative influences. In it the Archbishop describes artistic praxis in terms of a certain humble ‘obedience’ to the material, without which the artwork has no depth, ‘no sense of an imperative’,[1] being little more than an expression of the artist’s personal will:

‘You have to find what you must obey, artistically; and finding it is finding that which exists in relation to more than your will and purpose […] Imagination produces not a self-contained mental construct but a vision that escapes control […] The degree to which art is ‘obedient’ – not dependent on an artist’s decisions or tastes – is manifest in the degree to which the product has dimension outside of its relation to the producer’.[2]

What the artist is searching for, according to Archbishop Williams, is ‘the ‘necessity’ in the thing being made. It can only emerge ‘when the actual artistic form somehow lets you know that the necessity is not imposed by the hand of an artistic will but uncovered‘.[3]

My impression that Fujimura is an artist and writer driven by just this sense of an ‘imperative’ was confirmed once I began to browse through the materials at, which not only include hauntingly beautiful images from the ‘Four Holy Gospels’ collection, but also thought-provoking essays entitled Refractions to which I will hopefully be returning in future posts. Fujimura is clearly not only a cutting-edge arts practitioner (who has been involved in collaborative projects with musicians such as the percussionist/composer Susie Ibarra, about whom he writes in Refractions n.32) but falls into the category sometimes termed ‘interdisciplinary thinker’ or ‘public intellectual’, interested in anything and everything viewed from a Christian perspective which is at the same time deeply grounded in Asian thought.

Double Exile

One piece of writing not included in Refractions but which has caused quite a stir since its appearance a few months ago is a ‘Letter to North American Churches’ which Fujimura delivered at the Eighth Letter Conference for the Epiphaneia group in Toronto. The contributors had been asked to present a letter to the churches of North America modelled on the seven letters of the Johannine Apocalypse, and Fujimura responded with one written from an artist’s standpoint which is highly stimulating reading (even if, like me, you do not live in North America, as Fujimura’s consciously provocative comments are arguably relevant to the West more generally).

The letter opens with an arresting indictment of the way in which the institutional Church has tended to alienate artists:

‘Our relationship with you has not been easy. Artists are often misfits, dwelling in the margins of your communities. They are often seen in the back pew, if they come to church at all, wearing black. Maybe they look menacing to you.’

If this sense of dislocation is problematic, it is redoubled in the case of consciously Christian artists, who are ‘often exiled twice: once by the church, and then, because of our faith, by the world’ (when reading this, I thought of a conversation a few years back with a prominent young Christian ‘classical’ composer whose portfolio included commissions from ensembles such as the Philadelphia Orchestra, who mused on the fact that the artistic community loved his music but distrusted his religious convictions, whereas it was the other way round in the Church). Fujimura goes on to give his analysis of the roots of the problem as lying in Western modernity’s obsession with rationalism:

‘Our exile by you started a long time ago. In the late 18th century, you began to believe that we needed rational categories to try to protect “faith” from “reason’. Reason began to win the battle in this false dichotomy and the mystery of our being and the miraculous presence of God behind the visible were put under suspicion. Ironically, this division fragmented the Body of Christ and gave “secularism” her power.’

Makoto Fujimura, 'Countenance Three'

The only thing I would query here is Fujimura’s dating of the expulsion of mystery from the life of the Church to the late 18th century. It is admittedly tempting to see a watershed in the death of Johann Sebastian Bach in 1750, the disappearance of the last representative of the pre-modern Christian belief in a Divinely ordered Cosmos, who ‘heard the echoes of the music of the spheres and sought to synthesize what he heard’, as Fujimura’s letter asserts. However, building on the insights of the Nouvelle Théologie of the 1950s and 60s within Catholicism (Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, Marie-Dominique Chenu), many contemporary theologians such as those associated with Radical Orthodoxy (John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock) have adduced powerful historical evidence to suggest that the breakdown of the essential unity of mystical Christian spirituality and rational reflection is a long-term trend with much deeper roots. They argue that this theological severance of heart from head began as early as the late thirteenth century following the death of Thomas Aquinas, the last major Christian thinker to maintain a satisfactory balance between the two.[4] Indeed, Eastern Orthodox scholars such as Chrestos Giannaras have delved back further, consistently and often forcibly contending that the seeds of Western rationalism can be traced to the long-term theological preference of the West for the intellectualism of Saint Augustine as opposed to the more holistic approach of the Greek Fathers.[5] Be this as it may, there can be little contesting the validity of Fujimura’s assertion that the Western Church (and here his comments are unmistakably directed against more austere forms of Protestantism, particular in its North American variants) has often proved itself largely unsympathetic to art’s taste for intuition and paradox, wanting ‘proof instead of mystery, justification rather than beauty’. The perverse consequence, he argues, is that artists threw their lot in with a secularism that offered them an ersatz priestly status that the Church refused, in turn reinforcing the latter’s prejudices against art and thereby creating a vicious circle:

‘”Secular” powers took over the instutitions created by the church’s retreat from culture creation – they ask us to be gods in their museums, concert halls [think of Wagner or Karajan…], and academic arena. In turn, you erected walls to shield you and your children from these “dark forces”.’

To make matters worse, even the concept of art as a secular transposition of a religious impulse has now collapsed (logically given its origins in a belief in transcendence which secularism has progressively discarded, leaving art without a spiritual raison d’être). In Fujimura’s opinion galleries no longer function as surrogate temples; instead they are ‘sterile, minimalist boxes’, with artists nothing more than ‘celebrity merchants, selling their goods.’ Imitating the style of the book of Revelation, Fujimura lays the blame squarely on the Church for having abandoned a sacramental approach to reality in which the realm of the senses is neither idolized nor dismissed as spiritually irrelevant, but rather points beyond itself:

‘Artists have insight into the invisible qualities of Reality, but you have forced them to serve only the visible, the utilitarian, and the pragmatic.’

As examples of the exile of artists from the Church – the very place where their gifts ought naturally to have been embraced -, Fujimura points to the disturbing cases of Emily Dickinson and Vincent van Gogh. The experience of the young Emily is held up as an illustration of the pitfalls of well-meaning but mis-directed evangelistic strategies. As a teenager she attended Mount Holyoke Seminary in 1847/1848, where the 230 students in her year were compelled to declare themselves as either “Christians” (150), “Hopers” (50) or “No-Hopers” (30) unable to profess faith in Christ. Emily belonged to the latter and despite – or maybe because of – the intense proselytizing efforts of the school authorities remained in that group, despite unmistakable evidence in her personal correspondence of an intense spiritual desire on her part. The exertion of religious pressure upon her merely resulted in her alienation from institutional Christianity.

As for Van Gogh, Fujimura’s reference to his exilic status with respect to the Church has an irrefutable historical basis. The son of a Dutch pastor, Van Gogh pursued a religious calling in the 1870s, driven by a passionate desire to minister to the working poor, and was given a six-month trial position in 1879 in the Belgian mining village of Wasmes by the Eglise Chrétienne Missionaire Belge. This was however not renewed. The reasons cited in the report of the Union des Eglises Protestantes de Belgique make for extremely instructive reading; the key issue was not one of character, but of Vincent’s perceived inability to preach, which the Church placed above his evident pastoral gifts:

‘If the gift of eloquence, so indispensable to one who is placed at the head of a congegation, were added to the admirable qualities he displays at a sickbed or with the injured, to the devotion or self-sacrificng spirit, of which he gives constant proof… M. van Gogh would certainly be an accomplished evangelist.’ [5]

It is clear that Van Gogh fell foul of the Church’s limited concept of evangelism, which the Union des Eglises Protestantes perceived primarily in terms of converting French-speaking Belgian Catholics.

Fujimura illustrates Van Gogh’s subsequent alienation from the Church by pointing to his famous ‘Starry Night’, painted in Arles in 1889. He is not the first commentator to point out that the white-steepled building in the centre is incongrous with the southern French landscape, rather recalling the Dutch Reformed churches of Van Gogh’s childhood. However, Fujimura goes further, offering a startling symbolic reading of the painting. Visually, the church holds the picture together, but its centrality is only formal:

‘Notice that the church is the only building in the painting that doesn’t have light shining inside. He’s trying to tell you through this visual parable that though the church still holds these disparate matters of the Spirit and Nature together in the world, the Spirit has left the church and went swirling into Nature and the Cosmos.‘ (emphasis added)

Fujimura’s message is unambiguous – by alienating the very people called to exercise an artistic ministry at the heart of its life, the Church has impoverished itself spiritually. Given their rejection by Christian religious institutions, it is understandable that artists should have looked elsewhere in order to express their innate spiritual longings. Looking for a musical parallel, the case of the young Karlheinz Stockhausen springs to mind. A pupil of Olivier Messiaen, he was like his teacher a practising Catholic; in 1954 he wanted to compose an mass using electronic sounds for liturgical use in the Cathedral in his home town of Cologne and suggested the idea to the ecclesiastical authorities.

Karlheinz Stockhausen, 1991. Photo Kathinka Pasveer

When it was refused out of an opposition to the presence of loudspeakers in the Cathedral, he turned to the Book of Daniel’s song of the children in the fiery furnace, producing what is arguably one of the few undisputed masterpieces of electro-acoustic music, Gesang der Jünglinge. But this was a concert rather than liturgical work, and without saying that the Archbishop of Cologne should necessarily have agreed to Stockhausen’s proposal, it is not hard to see a connection between the Church’s incapacity for constructive dialogue with avant-garde art and the composer’s decision to leave Catholicism in the 1960s. After exploring Sufism and Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga, Stockhausen’s thinking in later decades was largely shaped by the esoteric ‘Urantia Book’, which provided a key source for his monumental cycle Licht.

Right-brained in a left-brain world

Makoto Fujimura’s own artistic roots may be in traditional Japanese Nihonga techniques, but there is a very obvious tradition within Western Christianity of illuminating the Gospels, as I mentioned in my posts on ‘Celtic Orthodoxy’, exemplified by the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells, to which Fuijmura appeals explicitly in the preface to ‘The Four Holy Gospels’.[6] I therefore think it not too far-fetched to seek certain parallels between the Celtic tradition and the current resurgence of the arts in certain sectors of the Church; this came home forcefully to me recently when reading some insightful and challenging comments in a book by George G. Hunter (Asbury Seminary Distinguished Professor of Church Growth and Evangelism) entitled The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West … again (10th anniversary edition (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010)). Hunter’s principal interest in the Celtic Church lies in its remarkable success at evangelizing the ‘Barbarians’ at the edge of Europe whom missionaries with a Roman model of cultural engagement deemed simply too uncivilized to be able to respond to the Gospel. His basic thesis is that the Roman approach to apologetics was based on the strategy of offering rational proof of Christian truth claims. It appealed to ‘left-brain’ cultures valuing ‘logic, concepts, abstractions, language, rationality’,[7] but proved ineffective at communicating with peoples such as the Irish, whose culture was ‘predominantly right-brained’, setting store by ‘intuition, emotions, imagination, art, music, poetry, experience’.[8] By contrast, the genius of the Celtic Church leaders lay in their ability to engage the ‘right brains’ of Barbarian tribes, believing, in the words of an old poem attributed to Saint David, that ‘no man is the son of knowledge if he is not also the son of poetry’. Here Hunter quotes Celtic Church historian Ian Bradley: figures such as Saints David and Patrick

‘excelled at expressing their faith in symbols, metaphors and images, both visual and poetic. They had the ability to … paint pictures in words, signs and music that acted as icons opening windows on heaven and pathways to eternity … They have much to teach Christians today seeking to rekindle their imaginative faculties.‘[9]

This remark seems extremely pertinent to Fujimura’s plea on behalf of a ‘right-brained’ artistic community that feels itself exiled from the rationalizing, exclusively ‘left-brain’ culture of the Western Church of recent centuries. Fujimura’s letter should be interpreted as far more than a self-seeking call for attention, since artists can be seen as representative of a much broader population of ‘right-brainers’ outside the Church’s walls. In The Celtic Way of Evangelism Hunter suggests that we are currently surrounded by unchurched ‘postmodern New Barbarians'[10] including all sorts of groups traditionally made to feel unwelcome by Roman left-brain Christianity ( ‘preliterate people, addicted people […] bikers, […] people who are blind, deaf, mentally disabled, or mentally ill […]’).[11] These bear a remarkable resemblence to the populations reached by Columba, Aidan and Patrick back in the early centuries of the Celtic Church, but with an interesting postmodern twist. The accelerating demise of the ideology of the Enlightenment has both made these social groups resistant to forms of religion smacking of authoritarianism and yet also made them as some of the most spiritually receptive people in our communities. Art can play a key rôle in reaching out to them in a way that dogmatic propositions cannot:

‘As the Enlightenment has faded, postmodern people are increasingly suspicious of people and institutions that claim authority, and they are increasingly dubious of ultimate explanations. They are rediscovering their intuition, and they own and trust their feelings more. They take in the world through what they see, touch, and experience – not just through what they hear – and they explore spirituality and the supernatural.'[12]

Put theologically, taking as a starting-point the idea that human beings are created in the image of a Trinitarian God, what seems to be going on here in the Christian circles associated with artists such as Fujimura is the search for a new equilibrium between Word and Spirit (corresponding very roughly to the brain’s left and right hemispheres [13]). As I have hopefully shown in previous posts, the Celtic Church – rooted in the Christian East, with its emphasis on the Threeness of God as no less important than the Divine Unity, seems to have been more aware of the need for this balance than most of Western Christianity. What we find with Makoto Fujimura, who after all is both a painter and an ‘artist of the Word’, (or for that matter with that most prominent contemporary Celtic Christian Rowan Williams) can be viewed as a quest for a healthy Logos-Spirit complementarity. From the lofts of New York to the monasteries of Ireland or Wales and the shores of Japan there is a message welling up to which we would do well to pay heed.

‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’ (Revelation 2:29)


[1] Rowan Williams, Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love (London: Continuum, 2005), 143.

[2] Ibid., 147.

[3] Ibid., 148.

[4] See John Milbank and Simon Oliver (eds), The Radical Orthodoxy Reader (Abingdon/New York: Routledge, 2009), especially Simon Oliver’s prefatory chapter ‘Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: from participation to late modernity’ (1-27), Rupert Shortt’s interview with John Milbank (28-48) and the latter’s ‘Afterword’ (367-404).

[5] See Christos Yannaras, Philosophie sans rupture (Geneva: Labor et Fides, 1986), passim., and Elements of Faith: an Introduction to Orthodox Theology (London: Continuum, 1991). One of Eastern Orthodoxy’s major philosopher-theologians who deserves to be far better-known in the West, Yannaras was the subject of some of Rowan Williams’s earliest theological work.

[6] Quoted in Kathleen Powers Erickson, At Eternity’s Gate: The Spiritual Vision of Vincent Van Gogh (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1998), 42.

[6] In his account of his collaboration with Ibarra, Fujimura also refers to a concept from Celtic spirituality: ‘every time we collaborate, the sound of her gongs grows within me, pointing me to an invisible reality, to what the Celts called “Thin Spaces”, a space between heaven and earth.’ (

[7] George G. Hunter, The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West … again (10th anniversary edition (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010)), 66.

[8] Ibid..

[9] Ian Bradley, The Celtic Way (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1993), 84, quoted in Hunter, 67. Emphasis added.

[10] Hunter, 103.

[11] Ibid., 92.

[12] Ibid., 103.

[13] I owe this correlation to a discussion with Methodist pastor and writer Larry Kalajainen.