Belief is hard – at least when you dwell within the bubble of secular modernity, where reality seems to function well enough without invoking divinity as a causal mechanism. As long as there is money in the bank and a storm hasn’t knocked down the local power lines, as long as I am healthy and not spending any time in foxholes, it might slip my mind that life is a gift rather than a possession. God doesn’t make it any easier by being invisible or in disguise, and preferring to be subtle when it comes to manifesting presence.
In The Poetic Imagination: An Anglican Spiritual Tradition, William Countryman sees the ebb and flow of divine presence as “the central rhythm of Anglican spirituality.” Like the elusive behavior of waves and particles, the Holy seems to leap unpredictably between available and unavailable, known and unknown, intimate and distant, withheld and given. This can be hard on believers.
Oh that thou shouldst give dust a tongue
To cry to thee,
And then not hear it crying! all day long
My heart was in my knee,
But no hearing.
Therefore my soul lay out of sight,
My feeble spirit, unable to look right,
Like a nipt blossom, hung
– George Herbert (“Denial”)
There is no other sound
In the darkness but the sound of a man
Breathing, testing his faith
On emptiness, nailing his questions
One by one to an untenanted cross.
– R. S. Thomas (“In Church”)
When Herbert or Thomas felt God’s absence, they still remained in relationship with divinity. They missed its nearness. They longed for an intimacy lost. For the totally secularized, God is not merely absent. God is not even missed. The sense of longing inherent to the human condition has been transferred to more tangible, less ultimate objects. For those who do not reside within the practices and discourses of a faith community, is a relationship with the transcendent recoverable? The arts have been proposed as a substitute for religion. But instead of replacing God, the arts often seem to incarnate the divine, even for those who would never think to describe their experience theologically.
In A Natural History of the Arts: Imprint of the Spirit, Anthony Monti cites Sir Thomas Browne on the way music restores us to a spiritual mode of awareness:
There is something in it of Divinity more than the ear discovers: it is an Hieroglyphical and shadowed lesson of the whole World, and creatures of God; such a melody to the ear, as the whole World, well understood, would afford the understanding. In brief, it is a sensible fit of that harmony which intellectually sounds in the ear of God.[i]
In more contemporary language, Frank Burch Brown writes that the Sanctus of Bach’s Mass in B Minor “so shines and overflows with the musical manifestation of divine plenitude that in the experience of many a listener heaven and earth seem to converge, revealing the ultimate reality of their ecstatic union/communion.” [ii]
Image Journal, an exquisitely produced quarterly exploring the intersection of “art, faith and mystery,” employs both beauty and thought to counter the modernist dogma of belief’s imminent extinction. And at last weekend’s Seattle concert in celebration of the magazine’s 25th anniversary, I experienced the “musical manifestation of divine plenitude.” For two glorious hours, four choirs and a reader of poems pushed back the veil of doubt and distance so that a fortunate crowd of listeners could dwell – effortlessly, ecstatically – in the radiance of holy presence.
The design of the program had a litugical structure. There were seven sections – a sacred number – conducting us through the stages of spiritual journey: Cloud of Unknowing, After Paradise, The Contemplative Life, Longing for the Messiah, Mothering God, Blessed Are Those Who Mourn, and From Darkness into Light. Each section’s theme was introduced by a contemporary poem wrestling with the presence/absence of what Denise Levertov calls “the Other, the known / Unknown, unknowable.” [iii] And each poem was followed by a triptych of choral pieces from medieval to modern, from Hildegard and Palestrina to Arvo Pärt and John Tavener. Seattle Pro Musica, Opus 7 Vocal Ensemble, the Medieval Women’s Choir, and the Women of St. James Schola took turns lifting their voices in the resonant space of St. James Cathedral.
Sometimes the presence entered gently, as in the lyric by Jeanne Murray Walker: “Listen! Already God descends, waking us, / with his new breath, from sleep, / … like a mother.” [iv] Sometimes it clapped like thunder, as when the supplicating harmonies of Tavener’s “God is with us” were met with the sudden roar of the organ in heaven’s unambiguous reply.
The most stunning moment for me came at the end of James MacMillan’s Christus Vincit. The triumphant text – “Christ conquers, Christ is King, Christ is Lord of All” – started quietly with the sopranos, joined by the basses rumbling a rhythmic plainsong like breaking waves. The interplay of high and low, feminine and masculine, was punctuated by generous silences, allowing us to savor the fading reverberations. Then a single soprano began to rise above the other voices, with melismatic ornaments resembling the grace notes of Celtic song. Alleluia, she sang, over and over, her voice rising in a vocal mimesis of the ascending Christ. The other singers fell away as she soared on: Alleluia! Alleluia! And then, reaching a high B that seemed beyond the reach of mortals, she sang “All-le – “, but instead of the final syllables, there was sudden silence, as if she had vanished into eternity before the word could be finished.
In such an atmosphere, it was unbelief that became impossible. No more weeping by the rivers of exile, no hiding of faces from an alien Creator, no wandering in the wilderness of doubt and loss. We were home at last. God was not a dubious idea, but an immediate experience.
Alas, we are never permitted to linger long around the throne of presence. Once the vision fades, we must go forth to redeem the time being from insignificance.[v] But those two blessed hours provided a rich and lasting sustenance for those of us who continue along the pilgrim way.
[i] Anthony Monti, A Natural Theology of the Arts: Imprint of the Spirit (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2003) 121
[ii] Ibid., 122
[iii] Denise Levertov, “Sanctus,” from concert program
[iv] Jeanne Murray Walker, “And He Shall Dwell With Them,” from concert program
[v] W.H. Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio in Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Random House, 1976) 308