Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas Wonder

The absolutely best television worship/carol programme I have ever seen was on BBC 2 on Christmas Day. If you are in the UK be sure to see it on iPlayer. It was so good I will probably observe the twelve days of Christmas by watching it each day.

It was sensitively filmed in a very dark Winchester Cathedral. What light there was added to the mystery and wonder: blue, rose and amber illuminating the ancient walls and vaulting. The music and readings were lovely, thoughtfully chosen and engagingly read. The faces of the choristers (girls as well as boys and men) quite literally shone with a deep happiness. The only cleric appeared at the very end, the dean, who read a prayer and gave a blessing. The whole presentation was entirely unaffected, a gesture towards the ineffable. It seems an oxymoron to speak of kenotic TV, but this came very close.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Happy Christmas

In December when seeds
are hidden in the ground
there sprung up
from Mary’s Womb
the Wheat-Blade of salvation
that gives Life.

St Ephrem [translated by Sebastian Brock]

A blessed Christmas to all, with joy and peace in the New Year.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Who Sings Prays Twice

Anonymous writes: 'I did not know names like Byrd and Couperin and have been inspired to learn more about them. . . .please consider a little tutorial for people like me who love silence but would also love to learn more about sacred music that will support us as contemplatives.'

Music and our responses to it are very personal. Augustine says, 'Who sings prays twice,' but that saying might apply to any music that conveys us to liminality. At the same time, there is no substitute for singing, which unifies the whole person and sets up vibrations that gladden the heart.

It is thought that music stimulates a different part of the brain than speech, a more primitive area, and it has been shown that animals respond to the rhythms of music. A friend sent me a UTube clip of a particularly joyous cockatoo dancing, really boogying, in near ecstasy. Drumming can stimulate trance, but the question Anonymous asks is particularly about contemplation, which is quite different from trance, although the attention is focused in a similar way, and perhaps at times there is some overlap.

Music has played a critical role in my life at various times, and music was involved in the event that determined the course of my life at age five. I attended a primary school attached to a cathedral that had a choir of boys and men, so it is not surprising that I have always loved that repertoire—and as a child was saddened that as a girl I was not allowed to sing it. Thankfully this barrier is now mostly a thing of the past.

Music is like anything else in contemplative life: to be had in moderation—and what speaks to one heart will be dust to another, so what follows is purely subjective. In monastic life, music plays a critical role in helping to seat the psalms and other texts in the psyche so that there is, as it were, a sort of continual prayer-wheel turning in the depths. One can take ones own spiritual temperature, as it were, by tuning into what psalm phrase is turning in the depths at any particular time. That most modern people don't have this internal concordance is a tragedy, because many ancient and medieval writers—and modern writers too—count on their readers' having a sort of echo-chamber in which their texts can resonate.

Chant, especially the Night Office, plays a significant role in contemplative life in other ways: the pace of chant allows about four breaths per minute, and the controlled breath helps to calm and focus. There is as much listening as singing, as the music comes first from one side of the choir, then the other; chant is cooperative. If you visit a monastery you can often tell what the state of the community is by the way its members chant. In the long Night Office there is an opportunity like no other to settle into the chant; images arise from the text or don't; a train of thought is begun or isn't; one fades in and out of liminality and probably in and out of what Isaac of Nineveh calls 'prayer beyond prayer'. In the Night Office one has the sense of plunging into an ever-flowing stream of prayer that is outside of time. The Night Office is itself liminal: it is neither yesterday nor tomorrow; it is suspended between death and life, darkness and light being both alike. The loss of the Night Office is in calculable, both for monastics and for scholarship that works on the texts that are formed by it.

But listening to recorded chant in small doses can be useful, and of course there are lots of different kinds of chant. My favourite chant is Carthusian, but there is very little of it available on CD. My favourite chant recording is one for Advent by the monks and nuns at Bec, in France. On it is a combination of Gregorian and Orthodox chant, very beautiful. As I recall it won the Grand Prix du Disque, but having just looked at the Amazon website, I don't think it's available any longer.

There is a lot of variation in the way Western chant is sung. I find some of Solesmes' chant a bit precious. The more natural and less perfect singing of the Monasterio de Silos, for example, which hit the top of the charts some years ago, is more to my taste. I like Orthodox chant, too, but a little goes a long way: it's a very rich diet.

Early medieval music also is lovely; much of it has what I think of as a hollow centre—there isn't much use of the middle note of a chord, for example in a C-major chord C, E, G, the E would be missing; I also like the melismas that come from Arabic music, and the use of ground-notes, or drones.

But my favourite sung church music is that of the renaissance and baroque, with some modern music thrown in, what is thought of as the 'English choir repertoire'. This contains a lot of renaissance polyphony (Purcell's 'Hear my Prayer O Lord' is one of my favourites, as is Byrd's 'Justorum animae') and baroque composers (Bach, Mozart, Gabrielli, Monteverdi, Victoria and others), but there are some glorious modern composers as well: Poulenc, Vaughan Williams, Patrick Hadley, Messien, Herbert Howells, Joubert, just to name a few. I didn't come across a lot of this music until I was in high school and after, and it was a revelation.

And of course today we have the contemporary music of Arvo Pärt (his Cantus on the Death of Benjamin Britten is right up there with Purcell's 'Hear my Prayer' in my book), John Tavener, and others. So far my remarks have been mostly about sung music, but the 'Cantus' is instrumental. Instrumental music can also feed contemplation, although I find flutes irritating and too much harpsichord makes me impatient. Just about any of what Bach wrote, or that of the composers that surround him is music you can lose yourself in. I don't much like Victorian organ or choral music but there most certainly are exceptions, such as Widor's famous toccata from the 5th symphony, when there is something to celebrate, or some of Vierne, or the Verdi 'Requiem'.

In the end you just have to pick and choose. It's worth doing a bit of musical research such as Anonymous is doing, and can be richly rewarding, if not revelatory, especially to someone who knows only the howl and thump of contemporary pop.

Finally a word about bells. Bells are in a class of their own, not handbells, but swung bells. A big tenor bell sounding my bones invariably brings tears to my eyes. I love English change-ringing, especially the half-muffled peals around Remembrance Sunday, but give me a European town or cathedral with every bell set in motion, jangling and clashing and making indvertent harmonies. I once heard a recording, which I tried unsuccessfully to copy—I think it had been made on someone's phone—of all the bells at Strasbourg Cathedral ringing at once. I have no idea how many there were. The tenor began, and gradually one bell after another joined in until the listener was somehow taken inside all of this thick sound—there are no words for it. Then a small, clear tinkling bell rang, one that cut through the resonances of the other bells, a signal to the ringers to begin to stop. One by one the bells dropped out until, again, only the tenor was left ringing and then, it, too, stopped, leaving a silence alive with windrush from angels' wings.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

St Lucy's Day

Finally found a church where the liturgy seems to arise from and enhance silence—except—why does there always have to be a fly in the ointment? (I know, I know, to keep us humble)—when the clergy appeared in birettas I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Fortunately their carrying on in the sanctuary was so physically elevated that one didn't have to look.

The light today (the 12th) could not have been lovelier: honey-coloured and almost horizontal, caressing the beautiful stone of the Radcliffe Observatory, soaking into nooks and crannies of grand and modest buildings alike. We are having a slight thaw, which looks to turn on Thursday to grim cold and snow. But today it was warm enough to start clearing the overgrown garden. To my joy, we found a Clematis montana elizabeth, one of my favourites. It blooms on old wood, so that while the cutting we did today will decrease the bloom this coming spring, we can look forward to fountains of blossom the year after.

It's after sundown as I write, so liturgically it's now St Lucy's day. Before the calendar change in 1752, St Lucy's day fell on the solstice. It inspired one of John Donne's greatest poems. I've posted it before, but it's worth posting again:

by John Donne

'TIS the year's midnight, and it is the day's,
Lucy's, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks ;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays ;
The world's whole sap is sunk ;
The general balm th' hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed's-feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr'd ; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compared with me, who am their epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring ;
For I am every dead thing,
In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness ;
He ruin'd me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death—things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that's good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have ;
I, by Love's limbec, am the grave
Of all, that's nothing. Oft a flood
Have we two wept, and so
Drown'd the whole world, us two ; oft did we grow,
To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else ; and often absences
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death—which word wrongs her—
Of the first nothing the elixir grown ;
Were I a man, that I were one
I needs must know ; I should prefer,
If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means ; yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love ; all, all some properties invest.
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light, and body must be here.

But I am none ; nor will my sun renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
At this time to the Goat is run
To fetch new lust, and give it you,
Enjoy your summer all,
Since she enjoys her long night's festival.
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year's and the day's deep midnight is.

Sunday, December 05, 2010


The sun shone as if from within a clouded flask this morning as I walked to church, rejoicing in the shimmering light and reflections of Donne's imagery.

But the service was a huge disappointment. The choir was absent (they're singing a special evensong tonight) and clearly the organist thought, 'Congregation are idiots, let's drop the hymns by a third', which made them unsingable, particularly Wachet Auf. The hymns became an inaudible, tuneless blat, the tessitura landing right at the break of most of the voices in the congregation—which was composed of highly educated people, many of whom had been through the matchless English collegiate church music programme.

The Americans expressed the same attitude in 1982 when they dropped almost the entire hymnal by at least a half step and in some cases a whole step. Who makes these idiotic decisions? I remember the questionnaire Alec Wyton sent round the dioceses before the '82 hymnal came out, asking if people thought the hymns 'too high'? In consequence, in the USA worship is now entirely gutted of its most ecstatic musical moments, at least from the congregation's point of view, because a few people (the sort who answer questionnaires) are too lazy to work at the music. Like everything else in liturgy in America and in the American church, congregational church music has been reduced to the lowest banal denominator, and everyone is spoon-fed, whether or not they need or want it.

Resonances set in motion by the head tones, like the deep, almost inaudible rumbles of the biggest pipes in a cathedral organ (or, in animist religions, by such instruments as the bull-roarer) are vital to good worship. It doesn't matter if some people have to reach for the high notes, while others struggle to reach for the low; we need those resonances, and they affect the sinuses of the non-singers as well as the singers. Good worship is physiological and subliminal: these resonances complement word, gesture, candles, incense, half-light, space to bring the worshipper to the liminality where the letting-go essential to transfiguration can take place. Music touches a far more primal area of the brain than speech, and to fail to take this into consideration in worship is yet one more example of why the institution is dying.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Advent Hope

Usually on Advent Sunday I obtain a ticket to one of the big services at a college, but this year I was invited to sing in a scratch choir at the tiny 14th century leper's chapel at Bartlemas, an oasis of quiet and green in East Oxfordistan. It was cold, very cold, and the heaters were out of propane for most of the afternoon, so we had to do with body heat, but that made no difference.

The service was organised by a newly-ordained young deacon, a DPhil candiate whom I've known for years. I have the usual mixed feelings: he will be wonderful for the institution, but I hate to see him commit spiritual suicide. For some reason (probably time and money) he has taken the local ministry route instead of going to theological college. For him I suspect this has been a good thing.

In any event, he has almost single-handedly kept this little chapel in use for several years, having an Evensong there at the end of every month. I have always meant to go, but I now live clear across town; it's difficult to get there, and I often forget. But I was very glad indeed that I showed up there on Sunday.

There were about ten of us in the choir, with a fortuitous balance. We sang the traditional responsories at the beginning and the end, and the rest was mostly hymns, but in true English style, the standard was amazingly high and I felt very honoured to be singing in this group—how I miss singing! But most Oxford groups are too high-powered for me; I want something more reflective, and this little group filled the bill.

We rehearsed for a couple of hours I guess—I completely lost track of the time, always a good sign. We went across the way for a break and then came back and took our places in the chancel along the walls and (quite open) screen. The chapel is very simple with an East-facing altar elevated on a couple of steps, a screen, and seating for about 50 in the nave. It was packed out. There was no electric light, only candles that each person held.

There were seven readings, quite short, with silence (never enough for me, but a good step in the right direction). Ben, the deacon, sat in the background to one side of the altar, on the step, like a story-teller who had set the scene in motion and become invisible. When the silence ended after each lesson there was a carol, which everyone sang, the choir in parts. At the end, Ben, always very low-key and exuding silence, said one or two prayers, good ones, and then gave a profound little meditation strung together entirely from key phrases from the Advent prophecies and stories: it was like sitting in an echo-chamber outside of time and space. Wonderful.

How he has managed to stick with it and swim upstream against noise and program and banality I will never know, but more power to him. I mean that literally. If only the institution could recognise that this is the way we need to go. But alas, there are all too few Bens in the world.

The second sign of hope this week occured last night. Unusually for me, I went to an evening event, an open meeting of the Oxford Graduate Theological Society held at Christ Church. In my despair I have deliberately stayed out of the loop. I didn't know what to expect from the theme, which was teaching theology in a secular university, but it was interesting to say the least. Most interesting was the chair of the Faculty who is German, and deeply thoughtful. For the first time in twenty-five years I heard reference to 'sapiential theology'; he even dared use the word 'meditation'. When we broke for groups he came and sat at the table where I was and asked us to introduce ourselves. I said very little except to point out that if he had said what he did when I first came to Oxford twenty-five years ago, he would have been written off, and how grateful I was to see that there is progress in restoring the balance. Again, I wondered how he had managed to swim upstream, but perhaps Germany is ahead of the UK in these matters (it usually is)—and his being a Bonhoeffer specialist explains much.

The graduate students were a good lot. When the clock struck ten, though the meeting was far from over, I slipped out, glad that I had hauled my carcase into the cold and walked the mile down to Christ Church to listen.

Outside there was a layer of ice on every surface, fortunately the crunchy sort, so not too slippery, but no sooner had I reached home and shut the door behind me than the skies opened. I love the sound of rain on the roof; it seemed especially appropriate that the terrible cold had broken just after these signs of thaw in theology. 'Drop down ye heavens from above. . . '

I slept better last night than I have for a very, very long time.