Requiems and rainbows

An era was over and a new Europe was being born. This much was obvious. But with the passing of the old order many longstanding assumptions would be called into question. What had once seemed permanent and somehow inevitable would take on a more transient air. . . Europe’s future would look very different—and so would its past. . . Whatever shape Europe was to take in the years to come, the familiar, tidy story of what had gone before had changed forever.

— Tony Judt[i]

In the introduction to his magisterial Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, Judt was writing of Europe’s rise from the ashes of World War II as a continent of some 46 countries sought to overcome a long legacy of division and conflict. His book was published in 2005, and Judt himself died in 2010, but his words could have been written after the Brexit vote. Europe remains a very untidy story, unsettled and full of questions.

When the European Union was hammering out its constitution a dozen years ago, there was considerable discussion about the status of Europe’s Christian heritage in a secular and pluralistic age. Of course, a return to a “Christendom” was neither possible nor desirable, but Scottish theologian David Jasper suggests that the noblest aims of the European Union could trace their roots to the (often neglected) Christian understanding of self-giving love rather than authoritarian power as the divine principle at the heart of reality.

A political life governed by love rather than naked power, he argues, would be “voluntary, willed, and deliberate, a working through of our diversities in totally conscious acts of friendship pursued in love and charity with our neighbors.”[ii] It would build bridges instead of walls.

It remains to be seen which kind of story will prevail, not only in Europe and the UK, but in the United States as well, where many “longstanding assumptions” about social harmony and progress have been cast into doubt by the disturbing resurgence of nativism, bigotry and racism.

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I took this photo on the Seattle-Bainbridge ferry on June 24. The Brexit vote had been announced the night before, on “Midsummer Night,” when, in olden times, mischievous spirits were said to be abroad, and bonfires were lit on British hilltops to aid the sun in its long decline toward winter.

I am not qualified to judge how much mischief and decline can be attributed to the Brexit vote, but the uncertainties of which Judt had written were much on my mind when I happened to see this rainbow, a biblical sign of promise. I snapped the photo on the fly without really composing it, but then I began to see things in it..

The woman seems representative of America as a land of immigrants. She contemplates her own image, like Venus with her mirror. Who am I? How did I get here? She is framing herself against the rainbow. She herself is part of the American rainbow. Is she surprised by what her screen is showing her? Does she register delight at existing in a world of rainbows? Will she turn to see the rainbow itself and not its image only?

We can’t see the face of the young man in the hoodie. He is a mysterious blank, the stranger from God knows where, a veiled presence destabilizing the scene with some unspoken question. His head is turned toward the rainbow, but his hands remain in his pockets. They are not extended in wonder or blessing. His thoughts and feelings are opaque to us. He is shut within the monastery of his dark clothing. Does he see promise in the sky? Is he sad, lonely, aloof, indifferent? Is he experiencing prayerful or poetic rapture?

We could compose a multitude of narratives about these two voyagers, but the only thing we know for sure is that they sail together on the same ark, and though the horizon seems dark, the shadows are illumined with the biblical sign of promise. This boat’s bound for glory, even if rough seas lie ahead.

Last night, at the Oregon Bach Festival, I heard the world premiere of A European Requiem, by Scottish composer James MacMillan. It is an astonishing work of complex sonorities, dramatic colors, and exquisite textures. Although it was composed before Brexit, its title and theme feel particularly resonant now. Do we live in a time of requiem or rebirth?

I was particularly struck by the work’s sublimity, that unnerving blend of fear and wonder generated in the presence of transcendent, overpowering mysteries. MacMillan seemed to suggest that the passage into whatever lies beyond our old familiar life is not altogether smooth and blissful. Hammering percussion and dissonant brass were anything but “rest eternal.” First the soul must be buffeted and broken open as the abyss of nonbeing widening before it. Only then can it hear the consoling chorus welcoming it into paradise.

But while MacMillan’s music allowed us to hear rapturous echoes from the “other side,” it did not take us across the divide. Instead, it concluded with the solemn sounds of the death bed. High, raspy strings whispered the last few breaths of mortal life. And after that, only the slow heartbeat of a bass drum, fading into silence.

Had the Requiem’s heavenly elements been merely a beautiful illusion, destined to vanish with every mortal thing? Or can we put our trust in something beyond the processes of dissolution and ending? Whether we are considering the fate of the world or the fate of the soul, it’s the question on which all else depends.

 

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On a lighter note, you can find my new photo essay on the spirituality of summer here.

 

[i] Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (New York: The Penguin Press, 2005), 1-2

[ii] David Jasper, The Sacred Community: Art, Sacrament, and the People of God (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2012), 127

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