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

Sunday, 24 September 2017

With a Twist of French: a sermon at a music festival

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 CĂ©sar 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 CavaillĂ©-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 listening. “Hearken 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

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