Spem in alium nunquam habui præter in te, Deus Israel:
qui irasceris et propitius eris,
et omnia peccata hominum in tribulatione dimittis.
Domine Deus, Creator cæli et terræ,
respice humilitatem nostram.
In English (my Englishing):
I have never placed my hope in another but you, God of Israel,
you who although you are angered even will be gracious,
and will put away all the sins of men in suffering.
Lord God, Creator of heaven and earth,
Look upon our lowliness.
From the Sarum use of the Roman Rite, based upon Judith 8:19 and 6:19.
Yesterday morning, I decided to watch the first episode of the Channel 4 programme Black Mirror at the recommendation of a friend. There is a synopsis here on IMDB. I felt kind of dead inside afterwards. This is, of course, part of the point of TV shows like Black Mirror — to hold up a mirror of the darkness of the insane, twisted world we live in. And I understand that. And maybe — maybe — we even need that sometimes. When we become too complacent with living with the darkness and forgetting to kick at it until it bleeds daylight. When we accept brokenness as ‘normal’ and the depraved and misguided as acceptable.
Yesterday just after lunch I went out, and I turned my phone’s radio to BBC Radio 3, where they were broadcasting live the lunchtime Proms. It was Thomas Tallis. When Tallis died, William Byrd said, ‘Tallis has died, and music has died with him.’ I’ve expressed my delight in Renaissance music here before, specifically in relation to Striggio’s Mass in 40 Parts. Well, I found myself quickly and easily caught up in Tallis’s music. I hope that this is what the heavenly choirs sing, because there is little music in this world more beautiful. It made my heart sing. I was happy and transported to another realm. Seriously. If I were alive in the 1500s, I would have a very hard time swallowing Heinrich Bullinger’s distaste for Renaissance music. I’m not sure I could ever be Reformed in that sense.
As I listened to Tallis, I thought about Black Mirror. In the episode I watched, the Prime Minister was forced into a horrible situation that involved committing a lewd act on television. One of the fictional commentators on the show said that this was the first truly great piece of art of the 21st century. Obviously fictional, but this is the sort of dark, shocking thing ‘real’ art seems to want these days.
Tallis, on the other hand. Well, Tallis is obviously after something else. Something bigger and better. The sixteenth century is not all glorious light and beauty. It’s not all the chapel at Hampton Court Palace or the art in Venice’s Accademia. It’s not all St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s not all Cranmer’s Prayer Book or Shakespeare’s plays. It is also disease and death and filth and squalor and war and uncertainty and treason and changing political regimes and changing religious regimes and all the usual dirt and muck and sorrow and darkness of the world.
Tallis does not stoop down into the muck, pick up a handful of it, and compose music of dissonance and cacophony that reflects that. He does not put the sh*t of England on display (and yes, it must be that crude word to gain full force) and call it ‘art’. Instead, he raises his eyes to the heavens, to the rolling spheres. He looks to the beauty of God’s creation and man’s artistry. And he makes something that is fitting to the majesty of the Creator God — something that can raise us up beyond the muck and mire.
The world is an uncertain place today, just as it was in the days of Tallis. But I prefer Tallis’ approach, the approach of redemptive beauty. He puts the texts of Scripture and the liturgy to stunning, inescapably beautiful music. With Tallis, I am able to rise above the dirty filth of the Internet age. With Tallis, I can encounter the sublime. This is a great and terrible good. It is not escape, but rather refuge and solace.
The music of Tallis, the art of Michelangelo, the poetry of Donne, the sermons of Andrewes — these are moments of glistening beauty that strike us at our hearts, shot straight from the bow of the Renaissance. And they are moments that are there to help us survive the disease and uncertainty and sorrow and pain and woe and terror that beset us every day, whether in the news or on the internet or down the street or across the stairway or in our own homes.
The inspiration is the text of 1 Corinthians 1:18-31.
Here we are on the third day of this week, headed inexorably towards Friday. From palms and rejoicing to death and sorrowing. Friday’s long shadow, the shadow of the cross, covers this week for us, even though we know that Sunday and the rising of Christ will come. But before we stand in awe of the risen Jesus like the mosaic in the apsidal dome of Basilique Sacré-Coeur on Montmartre, in Paris, we must pass through Friday, where we come face to face with the wisdom of God, with Fra Angelico’s fresco of Saint Dominic adoring the cross in the monastery San Marco in Florence. This is the wisdom of God—a darkened sky and a bleeding, dying saviour.
This automatically looks like folly to the wise of the world. And let us not fool ourselves here. We are the wise of the world, are we not? We are getting or already have university educations, learning the skills of critical thinking and logic. Some of us are so ‘wise’ we are getting PhDs — the height of worldly wisdom! We are accumulating knowledge and parsing ideas and texts and persons and characters. The whole university project, including New College, is founded upon the importance of reason. So let us not scoff so quickly at the worldly-wise fools who have not accepted Christ, those silly atheists, agnostics, Hindus, Muslims. For we, too, are worldly-wise. We, too, like it or not, are so very often fools.
Think upon this — and I do not mean to scorn the theologian’s trade in what follows; a Classicist and historian by trade, I am nonetheless an amateur in the field of theology — we spend hours and years and pounds of paper and litres of ink to talk about this glorious, wondrous event that occurred on Good Friday all those years ago. What we do, what we have been doing for centuries, amidst the glory and the wonder is, at times, parse the mystery. How does the death of Christ save us from our sins? Why does the death of Christ save us from our sins? What exactly must we do to profit from this death? Not unimportant questions. But not always to the point.
For here is the wisdom of God, the logic of salvation: The immortal dies. The mortal benefits from this death and gains immortality by trusting the immortal who died.
There is no logic here.
This is divine wisdom. It is myth enacted on the stage of human history.
I like reading the books of theology and the books of the mystics and the beauty of liturgies.
Sometimes, however, we think we can pierce the mystery of the cross and what transpired there. Sometimes we think we can figure out, to the most precise degree of logic and computation using the tools of history, philosophy, and philology, how it is that God became a man and died for our sins. But however close we come, we fall short. We cannot fully penetrate this mystery, for it is the divine economy for our salvation. It is the power of God to save the entire human race through his own death and resurrection.
Try as we may, the Cross will forever be a stumbling-block. To ourselves. To our friends. To ‘Greeks’. To ‘Jews’.
Therefore, without ceasing our rational questionings altogether, there are times when we must put the books down. Put our pens and paper down. Close our laptops. Stop parsing mystery and revel in it. Become wise fools for God.
And here we shall find the wisdom of God — a wisdom that is baffling to the wise. A wisdom bound up in the death of an otherwise obscure Jewish carpenter on a cross 2000 years ago. A wisdom entrusted not to those with eloquence or resources but to fishermen. Theodoret of Cyrrhus says, ‘The God of all … overcame the learned through the unlearned, and the rich through the poor, and through fishermen he snared the world.’
And so let us turn aside from those equipped with wealth who take pride in rhetorical skill and join with the humble fishermen of Galilee who had trouble perceiving the meaning behind the miracles and parables of our Lord. Let us take up this stumbling-block, this foolishness, this wisdom of God, and wonder at it. Let us become wise fools.
I have a few ideas to help cure us of our worldly wisdom, to help us enter into the mystery of the wisdom of God as wrapped up and displayed for us in gory glory on the Cross. As an historian and Classicist, they tend to take us back in time to our forebears in the faith.
The hymns, for example, help us stop parsing this mystery — ‘Man of Sorrows, what a name for the Son of God who came, ruined sinners to reclaim.’ ‘’Tis mystery all, th’immortal dies.’ ‘So I’ll cherish the old, rugged cross, and exchange it some day for a crown.’ ‘…beneath thy cross abiding for ever would I rest, in thy dear love confiding, and with thy presence blest.’
For those so inclined, fear not art. A painting of the crucifixion will have trouble presenting to us Our Lord and Saviour’s majesty—but therein is the glory. The glory of God is found precisely in his weakness, in his willingness to suffer and die as one of us for all of us. A fifth-century theological motto was, ‘One of the Holy Trinity suffered and died for us.’ And he suffered fully God and fully human. In San Marco, Florence, Fra Angelico painted frescoes of the crucifixion in each of the cells for the novices. Before each crucifix was the image of St Dominic in a different posture of prayer.
In the National Gallery of Canada, in Ottawa, there is a Renaissance painting of Christ with the crown of thorns. This was probably one of the first bits of Renaissance art I’d ever seen. And it moved me almost to tears—the exquisite skill of the artist made the thorns look like real thorns in real flesh, the red paint like wet drops of real blood. Here was Christ who saved me. In the Art Gallery of Ontario, in Toronto, is a large, exquisite bronze crucifix by Bernini. Just Christ’s body, suspended in the air of the gallery, hanging, dying, his flesh and bones and agony and sorrow on display for all—one of the Holy Trinity was crucified for us. These images were made to drive us to prayer, to remind us of the real cross of history.
Prayer is the gateway to this mystery. Why not pray before an icon or painting? Doing so, you may just become a wise fool.
How else can we become wise fools? Through the world of music. Try Bach’s St Matthew Passion or St John Passion. Listen to Part 2 of Handel’s Messiah. Enter into the world of mediaeval mystic St Hildegard von Bingen through her music as well. It is beautiful and enchanting. Or perhaps the Renaissance is more your style — there is always Thomas Tallis and Alessandro Striggio, whose settings for the Eucharist — that perpetual memorial of Christ’s precious death and glorious Resurrection—can stir the soul to worship of Almighty God in potent ways. There are ways music can lift our souls that reason and logic cannot. Embrace them to enter into the mystery of Christ crucified. Find the wisdom of God in music. Become a wise fool.
We should realise that the great theologians were also often great contemplatives. St Anselm of Canterbury, the twelfth-century theologian notorious in many circles today for fleshing out penal substitutionary atonement theory, was also a man of prayer. See the other side of this man through Sr Benedicta Ward’s translation of The Prayers and Meditations of St Anselm—we have copies in New College library. He writes in his ‘Meditation on Human Redemption’:
See, Christian soul, here is the strength of your salvation, here is the cause of your freedom, here is the price of your redemption. You were a bond-slave and by this man you are free. By him you are brought back from exile, lost, you are restored, dead, you are raised. Chew this, bite it, suck it, let your heart swallow it, when your mouth receives the body and blood of your Redeemer. Make it in this life your daily bread, your food, your way-bread, for through this and not otherwise than through this, will you remain in Christ, and Christ in you, and your joy will be full. (pp. 234-235)
Perhaps St Thomas à Kempis’ Imitation of Christ is more your style. Or maybe you’re more Reformed, and these mediaeval people are a bit unsettling. Become a wise fool through John Calvin’s Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life — found in the 21st chapter of the Institutes. Find your way beyond simple logic-chopping into mystery. Become a wise fool.
Read and reread the Gospel narratives of Our Lord’s passion. Enter into the story. Join Mary, Mary Magdalene, and John at the foot of the cross. Through the cross we enter into paradise, into the embrace of the Holy Trinity — of a God whose very nature defies worldly wisdom and straightforward logic. Become a wise fool.
Let us return to the words of St Paul:
God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence.
Grasp this foolish God, grasp this God who conquers through defeat, who is exalted in lowliness, who dies to bring life, who lived with us to die, who is one yet three. Grasp this foolish God who brings heaven and life and paradise and wonder as close as our very breath. Who is Himself as close as our very breath. He became a human that we humans might become like him — and he wrought this great deed through the foolishness of this stumbling-block that is the Cross.
I have been getting into Renaissance music recently. While I have enjoyed Palestrina in the past, I didn’t really listen to much Renaissance music until my friend Frank made me aware of I Fagiolini & Robert Hollingworth’s recording of Alessandro Striggio’s Mass in 40 Parts, then Missa Ecco Si Beato Giorno. Out of curiosity, having viewed the YouTube video that discusses the recording, I listened to it on Spotify enough times to make it worth purchasing.*
When I first heard the Mass in 40 Parts, I almost cried, it was so beautiful. This mass is a very fine example of Renaissance polyphony — polyphony is what the word appears to mean, many sounds. Like its Baroque successors, this music tend to utilise counterpoint rather than harmony — Renaissance harmony (I think) tends to be chord-based, unlike what we experience in Beethoven or Wagner.
Counterpoint is the overlaying of multiple melodies, each doing something different. A fugue is a popular manifestation of Baroque counterpoint.** Usually, as in a fugue, music is written in four parts (like what I had to write when I took Harmony with the Royal Conservatory). What makes this particular piece of Renaissance Polyphony mindblowing is not just the expected beauty of it all but —
That means, at the height of the majesty of Striggio’s Missa Ecco Si Beato Giorno there are forty parts at once. Not simply forty musicians or singers or anything like that. 40 different parts, multiple melodies laid over strong, chordal harmonies at the base. Forty. Parts. Hence polyphony.
Alessandro Striggio (b. 1536/7) was a court musician of the Medici family of Florence. It recorded that in April 1561, a ‘song for 40 voices’ of his composition was performed for two papal envoys on their way to restart the Council of Trent (the ‘counter-reformation’ council; council of the Catholic Reformation?). The liner notes of this CD reckon that the 40-part song was the magnificent first track of the album ‘Ecce beatam lucem,’ a glory of Renaissance majesty. This song is performed again in 1568, it seems.
In 1567, we first hear of Striggio having produced a Mass in 40 parts. This Mass is partly derived from the 40-part ‘Ecce beatam lucem,’ partly innovative — it is ‘polychoral’; the forty parts are divided between five choirs each singing eight parts. A clever strategy to achieve the wonder that this piece of music is.
Words cannot properly describe music. The Mass in 40 Parts by Striggio as recorded by I Fagiolini with Robert Hollingworth is … mindblowing, majestic, triumphal, heavenly, beautiful. It brings about those moments when your soul itself feels literally ‘uplifted’, those moments when you are drawn entirely into the moment itself — a moment of beauty, of peace, of wonder.
The Mass, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, the Divine Liturgy, Holy Communion — the liturgical event for which this Counter-Reformation Renaissance polyphony was composed — is an act of worship to the holy, Triune God, who is worshipped by the angels with their thrice-holy cry. In the Eucharist, we enter the throne room of God Almighty, who was and is and is to come, the unmoved mover, uncreated creator, whose throne is the heavenlies and footstool is earth.
Should it not be a time to catch your breath? A time to be filled with wonder? A time to weep? A time to be filled with joy? A time for wondrous beauty?
I look forward to I Fagiolini’s 1612 Italian Vespers on 4 June.
*Spotify users: The artists themselves generate very little revenue from Spotify. If you enjoy little-known bands or classical music, purchase your favourites to give them royalties. More money for artists = more art = a better world.
**Like this one, by Bach. 2:40 gives you a good visual representation of a fugue. If logic doesn’t convince people there is a God, Bach might be able to ….
The Eucharistic Prayer of Addai and Mari, ll. 14-18:
Thy majesty, O my Lord, a thousand thousand heavenly beings and myriad myriads of angels adore and the hosts of spiritual beings, the ministers of fire and of spirit, glorifying thy name with the cherubim and the holy seraphim, ceaselessly crying out and glorifying and calling to one another and saying: Holy, holy, holy … (Trans. A. Gelston)
The prayer whence comes this quotation is a mediaeval East Syrian (ie. ‘Nestorian’) Eucharistic prayer, still recited to this day in Syriac in the Assyrian Orthodox Church and not much changed from its reconstructed fifth-century predecessor. This Eucharistic prayer is interesting to me because it has an unequivocal statement of God becoming incarnate and suffering and dying — the sort of thing one would expect from my Monophysite friends of the Syrian Orthodox Church. It serves as a reminder that to box in the living Church according to the disputes and anathemas of centuries past can make one lose sight of the true faith of the people involved.
Of course, the reason I draw your attention to this prayer is the passage quoted above. It is beautiful. It is a beautiful, lyrical passage, clearly stemming from the same people whence Ephraim the Syrian sprang. This brief moment from the East Syrian liturgy stirs my heart to worship the Almighty God — and much more so than the worship song the radio plays right now that has been repeating the line, “I’m so deep in love,” about ten times before getting around to, “with you.” (With whom? I was too focussed on myself and forgot.)
Noting the incongruity, I am now playing Striggio’s Missa “Ecco Si Beata Giorno” — the Mass in 40 Parts.
I’m not actually here to rag on the contemporary worship music scene. I trust God enough to know that He does great work through it and receives due glory from those who worship with it. However, I am here to draw attention to the magnificent beauty of the ancient, Mediaeval, and Renaissance liturgies — their hymns, their prayers, their music.
“When through the woods and forest glades I wander / And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees, When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur, / And hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze,” not only does my soul want to sing, “How great Thou art,” unto the wondrous Creator God, it also wants to sing, “How beautiful thou art!’
God has created a wondrous, beautiful world, and it is only fitting that our worship of him be beautiful as well. This is part of the fabric of the Eucharistic Prayer of Addai and Mari. This is what drove men like Striggio to compose wondrous things like a mass in 40 (40!!) parts. Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised!
Plunging into the tradition, rediscovering the riches of things like the Gelasian Sacramentary (as I currently am) is as important as rediscovering the ancient and mediaeval theologians. Often when we look upon the offerings from Patristic blogs or at the upcoming Oxford Patristics Conference or anywhere interested in the Fathers, we find a lot of thoughts about the theology and doctrine of the Fathers, maybe some information about Church History in the Patristic Age, but less about the worship of the Fathers.
Now, I realise that part of this is because of how complicated the liturgical legacy of the Fathers is. If you take any of the Eastern divine liturgies, such as the one quoted above, or those attributed to Sts. John Chrysostom and Basil the Great, you find the words and order for worship of something that has been in constant use since the fourth or fifth century (with roots stretching earlier than that).
How can we disentangle Chrysostom from the later Byzantine worshippers? It is a task scholars spend entire careers doing. However, we still have many individual prayers from the Patristic age as well as other poems and songs, such as:
St. Ambrose’s hymns (remember this from before?), St. Ephraim the Syrian’s hymns (such as those on the Nativity), St. Romanos the Melodist’s hymns (as here), and the hymns and poetry of Prudentius (as here) would probably be good places to start. They are allusive and beautiful, tuning and turning our thoughts upwards towards God Almighty and the worship of him alone.
In an age where Westboro Baptist stages its “God Hates the World” and “God Hates Fags” demonstrations, where terrorists crash airplanes into buildings (or blow them up), where Pastor Terry Jones threatens to burn the Qu’ran, where people sometimes destroy property and human life in their anti-abortion stance, where Christians who have converted from Islam are systematically tortured or executed in some countries, where former President G W Bush used biblical rhetoric to underlie engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, where Hindus in India attack Christian minority groups, where Christians and Muslims in Nigeria often turn to violence against one another — in such a world, many people have a hard time seeing what good “religion” and, frequently, Christianity in particular, has to offer.
Historically, it is easy to see the good that religion has done (thus giving the lie to Hitchens’ subtitle, “How Religion Poisons Everything”). We need look no further than the hospitals of the city of Toronto, one, St. Michael’s, founded by Roman Catholics and another, Mount Sinai, by Jews. Historically, religious people have been on the front lines of providing healthcare. Livingstone brought both the Bible and medicine to Africa. The first hospitals of the Byzantine and mediaeval worlds were church organisations.
I have posted previously about Christian fiction — there is great narrative art from the pens of Christians, from the Anglo-Saxons to Dante to Spenser, Milton, and Bunyan to Chesterton, Waugh, Lewis, Tolkien, Buechner. The Christian faith has produced some consummate storytellers.
Any cathedral with its stained glass intact can tell you that in no way is religion an entirely bad force. Behold the Sistine Chapel! Gape at the illuminated Winchester Bible! Stand in awe before Michelangelo’s Pieta! (Sorry I used Buonarroti twice.) Any history of art that covers the Middle Ages and Renaissance will give a good hearty drink of what good religion can produce.
If you watch the video Palestrina’s link takes you to, you will see some of the architecture of the Church. Christianity has produced some amazing architecture over the centuries. So have Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. When a person is striving for the highest good, when striving for something greater than one’s own petty self, beauty can be achieved.
But what good does religion do today? A lot of people think that it has outlived its usefulness, that it has become nothing more than a source of strife and division, that our society has evolved beyond needing religion.
Well, in purely “practical” terms (ie. beyond what I see as the spiritual benefits), religion has built at least one hospital in Angola and a nursing school with it and another nursing school in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. These are recent foundations. Religion has brought many a person off the street, out of addiction, and into the workforce through organisations like the Salvation Army, Shelter House, Bethany Christian Trust.
In Toronto, I spent a good number of Saturdays at Toronto Alliance Church, the “Upper Room”. This church is in the upper level of a storefront on Queen St. near Bathurst. If you know Toronto, you have visions of that area with the intersecting streetcar lines, the street-health clinic, the street people, the community housing, the nifty shops, the closed down shops, the Starbucks on one corner, a mission to street people on another, Pizza Pizza the third, and a bar (now closed) on the fourth.
Every Saturday night at Toronto Alliance is “Community Night.” There is a meal — soup & sandwich or something more filling, always warm — a clothing room full of donations people have brought, a nurse who can look after people’s feet (this is a real problem for a lot of people who live on the street), and a food bank.
Part-way through the night, the eclectic group of people who has gathered for food and friendship has a church service gathered around the tables. There are always some of those old “revival” hymns, like “Just As I Am,” and frequently a lot of the people present know and love these hymns. Then there is a message from someone on the church’s ministry staff; when I went, usually Bill or Doug. The message was simple and always focussed on Jesus and the hope he brings and the change he can make.
These church services are sometimes raucous affairs. I’ve never seen banter during an Anglican sermon, but there would be banter here. People would often still mill about, but not many. Some people looked uninterested, but others took a keen interest in the hymns, prayers, and sermon.
Bill, the pastor of Toronto Alliance, knows a lot of the people who come out to Community Night. He’ll chat with them, see how they’re doing, show real concern for them and their welfare. We often think that helping out that vague, amorphous group “the unfortunate” is a matter simply of food, shelter, clothing. It is also very much a matter of love, as I witnessed in Cyprus, of love for the lonely, friendship for the friendless, and light for the lost.
Saturday nights at Toronto Alliance Church provide for the whole person. That alone tells me that religion is of much good in this world, in spite of Westboro Baptist and Islamist terrorism.