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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Have You Any Soul? A sermon for a music festival

This church is one of the North East’s finest monastic buildings. Brinkburn was Augustinian, though our music today is being by the choir of a Benedictine Cathedral. So let me honour this place by asking what Augustine of Hippo had to say about music. In Book 10 of his Confessions, he admits that he loves music, and that when sung, ‘sacred words stir my mind to greater religious fervour and kindle in me a more ardent form of piety than they would if they were not sung’.  But he is aware of a trap: ‘finding the singing itself more moving than the truth which it conveys’. He talks about the risk of gratifying the senses on the one hand, and the gifts that music has to confer on the other. He asks for help not to confuse the gift with the Giver. ‘Have pity on me and heal me, for you see that I have become a problem to myself.’

More famously, he said:
‘whoever sings, prays twice’. This is usually taken to mean first through the words and then the music. But I don’t think he means this. He is saying that when we praise God, our music is transformed through the act of offering: it is lifted above the ordinary song of the dance floor or tavern or concert hall. It becomes an act of self-giving devotion. The ‘twice’ is first what we hear physically, and then where it comes from spiritually, its source at the heart of a human soul when it comes not just out of musicianship but from love.

This is the cue for my theme at this music festival, when the Old Testament reading charmingly announces that ‘the time of singing has come’. In the gospel reading, Jesus draws on a musical analogy. ‘This generation is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, “we piped to you and you would not dance; we wailed and you would not mourn”’. There is no pleasing this crowd – that’s the message. A prophet appears, the ascetic John the Baptist, calling for austerity and repentance, and this doesn’t satisfy them. But neither does the Son of Man who loves a party and sits at table with all comers. They don’t like that either. Singing and dancing, wailing and lament – neither finds a hearing among a stubborn, unresponsive people. Whether the music is in a major or minor key, they want none of it. You could say that they have no soul.

Some of you know Nick Hornby’s book High Fidelity or have seen the film. It’s set in a record shop (a dying species: if you find one, support it at once). A woman comes in. “‘Have you got any soul?’ she asks. That depends, I feel like saying; some days yes, some days no. A few days ago I was right out; now I’ve got loads, too much, more than I can handle. I wish I could spread it a bit more evenly, I want to tell her, get a better balance, but I can’t seem to get it sorted. I can see she wouldn’t be interested in my internal stock control problems though, so I simply point to where I keep the soul I have, right by the exit, just next to the blues.” Nick Hornby charts (forgive the word) the fortunes of an obsessive. His public world is the record shop, his private one his collection of discs, his relationships and the complexities of the male psyche. In its off-beat way, the book is not only funny but accurate in the way it lays bare an ordinary human life. His records are a metaphor of his personal world, but they are also a gateway to it. ‘Is it so wrong, wanting to be at home with your record collection? It’s not like collecting stamps, or beermats, or antique thimbles. There’s a whole world in here, a nicer, dirtier, more violent, more peaceful, more colourful, sleazier, more dangerous, more loving world than the world I live in.’ Yes, that is indeed art; and that is indeed the human soul. ‘Know yourself’ says the wisdom of antiquity. To peer into our own soul and recognise what is there takes insight, patience and courage.

‘Have we any soul?’ That is the question music and art puts to us. Art says: here is beauty, here is delight, here is tragedy, here is a view of things we may not have glimpsed before. The question is, have we the soul to hear and to listen, to be touched by it and respond to it; even to be changed by it? I doubt it happens by itself. We can use music as mindless wallpaper, even in churches, but there is no guaranteed osmosis that will get inside and make a difference to us. Or we can pay attention, not just hear but listen. Then communication takes place: music becomes a form of speech whose language can elicit a response. Beethoven wrote on his Missa Solemnis, ‘from the heart: may it go to the heart’.  When heart speaks to heart, there is recognition; and by being spoken to, as if by name, we realise in a new way who and what we are. We are brought back into a relationship with our own soul.

I’ve often spoken of the part Bach’s passion music played in my becoming a Christian and later on, a priest. I would not be here now if it were not for the transformative part Bach played in my life: a fifth evangelist indeed. I look back on this experience as one of the ways in which I was humanised, brought back from illusion and fantasy to a deep truth about human life, put back together again. To become more fully human is to rediscover how we are made as the image of God the divine artist and musician who has given us mortals the faculty of imagination, the capacity to respond to beauty, the gift of being enchanted, the ability to create worlds of melody and harmony as God himself creates and sustains the universe. John Milton speaks of the ‘perfect diapason’ that was lost in the fall, but not irretrievably, for the work of redemption is once again enabling mortals to ‘sing in tune with heaven’. So music does not simply give us a glimpse of redemption: it has a redemptive dimension in itself. In the Psalms, the invitation to make music is not, I think, only to celebrate God’s praise but it is to invoke his very presence amidst humanity, to bring him in our midst. With God among us, all of us become musicians who join in the music of the spheres. We dance when God pipes joyfully to us; we enter into his lament when there are tears in things. ‘Do you have any soul?’ It’s God’s question to each of us.

If we take ‘soul’ seriously, music will always be an act of love in all its aspects: composing, performing or listening. This was Augustine’s point: we pray twice when we sing with love. Elgar said of The Dream of Gerontius, ‘this is the best of me, written from my insidest inside.’ He has put the whole of himself into it, an offering of love because love costs everything we have. This is why faith often seems to hover on the periphery of music even when it is not consciously recognised. Herbert Howells said that he was agnostic except when he was composing. Music, like architecture, painting and poetry is one of faith’s companions and interpreters. It enables us to grasp reality in fresh ways. And when it is put to work in the service of the church, it becomes conscious, capable of enabling worship to soar to the heights and plumb the depths of our human life as we experience under God.

Musicians are not named among the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers whose gifts adorn the church.  But don’t musicians bring good news too?  The great rose window of Durham Cathedral that I call ‘God’s Eye’ has the twenty four crowned elders of the Book of Revelation arrayed round Christ in glory, each playing a harp. It tells me that music is enshrined, not just among the arts, but among the bearers of God’s truth and light.  There is the answer to the question, ‘Have we any soul?’ Augustine was right: to sing out of love and adore the eternal God is what we were made for. Just as we are doing in this eucharist right now.

Brinkburn Abbey, Northumberland: at the Music Festival Eucharist, 6 July 2014.
Song of Songs 2.8-13, Matthew 11.16-19, 25-end

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