Today this Hexham Abbey festival “with a French twist” reaches its climax. I’d better own up at once to being an ardent Francophile. My love of France and its people, their rich legacy of art, literature and intellectual life, their heritage and landscapes has if anything been strengthened through the torturous Brexit we are inflicting upon ourselves.
At the end of this service we shall hear the Final of Louis Vierne’s first Organ
Symphony. After that we are going to enjoy César Franck’s Violin Sonata, one of
the greatest ever written. Franck was a Belgian by birth, but he lived and
worked in Paris and thought of himself as entirely French. His final church
post was as Titulaire and Maitre de Chapelle at Saint Clotilde
with its Cavaillé-Coll organ that was the love of Franck’s life and the
inspiration for much of his music. Vierne was his pupil and later Organist Titulaire at Notre Dame. I tell you all
this because of something Vierne said about his teacher. He wrote in his
memoirs that Franck had “a constant concern for the dignity of his art, the
nobility of his mission, and the fervent sincerity of his sermon in sound….Joyous or melancholy, solemn or mystic, powerful
or ethereal: Franck was all these.”
That phrase sermon in
sound is striking. A sermon, literally, means a word or a speech, a conversation,
a discourse. What we intuit about music
is that it’s just that, a form of speech that communicates in ways that
ordinary words can’t do. I want to be careful here. The crafted words of
literature and liturgy, of drama and poetry do have that capacity, and the way
they touch us can feel like our experience of music. For great art somehow knows us and reaches into our deepest
selves taking us far beyond the power of ordinary speech. It awakens our
imaginations, stretches our horizons, kindles our spirits. And if we have ears to hear, music it speaks to us of life in all its
tragedy and glory. It speaks to us about ourselves. It speaks to us of God. “Joyous
or melancholy, solemn or mystic, powerful or ethereal” said Vierne. Beyond the
earthquake, wind and fire, or through them, or in them, we
hear the still small voice of God’s Spirit.
What we listen to and how is something the scriptures take
seriously. In the ancient world and still today, the body's orifices are
regarded as needing scrupulous attention because they are the channels by
which we are connected to the outside world. In particular, what we see and
hear has the potential to uplift us or corrupt, and everything in between,
because it allows the world beyond the boundaries of our bodies to penetrate.
Seeing well, and even more gearing well, are highly significant. When Israel made a covenant with God, it was couched in the language of
listening. “Tell us everything that the Lord tells you,” they say to Moses “and
we will listen and do it.” In Proverbs there is a repeated call to find wisdom
by paying attention: “My children, listen to me and be attentive to the words
of my mouth”. When Jesus says “I am the good shepherd” the test of his
authority and his integrity comes down to listening: “the sheep hear his
voice…they follow him because they know his voice”.
When St Wilfrid founded this great abbey in 674, it was as a
Benedictine community. (Yes, it was rebuilt as an Augustinian priory in the twelfth
century, but let’s not forget its Benedictine origins.) The Rule of St Benedict is one of the
classics of Christian writing. One of its great themes is obedience: to the
scriptures, to the Rule, to the abbot, to the voice of the community, and most
of all, to God. The word obedience is
derived from the Latin obaudire whose
root audire means to listen. The very first word of the Rule underlines that idea of serious
to the voice of the Master and incline the ear of your heart.” Listen! Pay
attention! Train your ears to respond. And when you hear, try to discern the prompting
of the Spirit and let your open ears be a symbol of open hearts and open minds
– open to God, and open to the wisdom of the inner voice of truth and conscience.
The capacity to listen well is basic to the good life. We
know what it is like to be talking to someone who is looking away from us, only
half paying attention, not caring enough to lend us their ears. Often
it’s the distraction of some other voice, some more important person glimpsed
over the shoulder, some better song than ours that's more worth listening to. And
if our attention spans in modern life have never been generous, the worldwide
web and social media have tended to shortened them still further. Four minutes,
some say, is the limit. I’ve already been preaching longer. Who has
the patience any more to sit through a Bach passion or a Beethoven symphony let
alone a Wagner music-drama?
And that’s our challenge in these times. To let ourselves become
overstimulated, incapable of investing time and effort in what is worthwhile is a besetting sin of our age; a craving for what belongs to the instantaneous, the immediate here and now, while we lose the judgment to decide what we should and shouldn’t
pay attention to. Here is where music can
teach us. There is no quick gratification in great art. You have to invest in it, take the time it takes, surrender to it. Music you give yourself to rather than merely play in the background is an opportunity not
only to learn how to listen well, but to grow in the attentiveness that takes
the larger and longer view and allows us to see our "instants" in a larger setting. It's how we become open to what the eighteenth century French
spiritual writer De Caussade called, in a wonderful phrase, “the sacrament of the present
moment”. It’s a gift, but we have to listen out for it, be attentive and open.
Then, listening can be a life-changing event. For whenever life is touched and
transformed, we can be sure that God is among us.
Back to Vierne and Franck
and the phrase a sermon in sound. Cathedrals
and abbeys like this one are sometimes spoken about as “sermons in stone”. You
look around you as you sit a great building listening to great music. And aren’t
you drawn, if you have any feeling, to think to yourself, there is something
here that is bigger than me, older and wiser than me, something that touches
me, speaks to me, compels me to pay attention? Maybe the music we have been
enjoying in this festival has spoken to us, moved us in some way, opened once
more the doors of our perception? If so, I call that an experience of God’s
presence and his very self. And I think of Jesus walking the shores of Galilee,
calling to anyone who would listen, inviting them to hear his words and find
their lives changed. Can music call us to new ways of being alive in God’s
world, new depths of wisdom and insight, new treasures of human experience to
enrich our lives and share with others?
Music preaches the best of sermons if
we will sit and listen. Of such is the kingdom of God.
Hexham Abbey Festival, 24 September 2017
- Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in Northumberland. I have been a parish priest, theological educator and cathedral precentor; then Dean of Sheffield 1995-2003 and Dean of Durham 2003-2015.**** I blog on faith, society, church matters, the North East, European issues, the arts, travel and anything else that intrigues.**** My main blog is at http://northernwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.**** My sermons and addresses are at: http://northernambo.blogspot.com.**** Blogs during my time as Dean of Durham: http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.