Thursday, June 30, 2011

Beauty and Music

This, from Fr. Stephen Freeman's blog, absolutely takes my breath away:

There is a theology of beauty, which harkens back to the language of the Old Testament when Moses desires to see God “face to face.” Such a vision is not granted to Moses, but many other visions which foreshadowed the vision of St. Paul are indeed given to Moses-the-God-seer. This is not the language of abstract religious thought but the language of the whole of art and its inner desire. We long for beauty, regardless of how poorly we often define it. True beauty takes our breath away and confounds our ability to describe it.

Much the same can be said of music. “God has made man to be the singer of His radiance,” St. Gregory the Theologian has said (PG, 38, 1327). We sing and we love to sing because at its very heart, we are singers of the radiance of God. It is certainly true that we sing many things that resemble in no way the radiance of God – and yet the drive towards song has its roots in God’s radiance. Perhaps the most essential writing in all of Scripture is the book of Psalms. At best, we moderns read it like poetry, though it was always meant to be sung. God, rendered as prose, is perhaps the deepest misrepresentation of all.

This itself is the problem found in many modern expressions of Christianity – they are prosaic. This is not to say that they are without music – though they are often without good music (let the arguments begin…). Liturgical expression (particularly of the ever-changing make-it-up-as-you-go-variety) fails to rise to the level of mystery. Sacraments, even where underpinned with relatively sound doctrine, still collapse into the prosaic life of modernity. In very few cases would emissaries from a strange land return from modern Christian worship and declare, “We knew not whether we were on earth or in heaven. But of a truth we know that God is with them” (the report of St. Vladimir’s emissaries to Constantinople in the 10th century).

Far more to the point is the prosaic character of Christian lives. Beauty and poetic wonder are not only missing in our relationship with God – they are missing from our lives. My experience is that Byzantine worship is no guarantee of beauty within its participants. However, it does not underwrite the banality of modern culture.

Several years back I was speaking with a small Russian choir, touring the United States from St. Petersburg. They were all Church singers, but also singers from various opera companies in St. Petersburg as well. Needless to say they were an exceedingly talented group. One of the hymns they had sung that night was a particularly difficult and moving piece by the Russian composer, Chesnokov. In the course of the conversation I noted the great beauty with which it was written and with which it had been sung that night. One of the choral members told that that it required careful spiritual preparation (“that all needed to be without anger and at peace with one another”) before this hymn could be properly sung.

Of course, this is not only true of the exquisite music of Chesnokov or other stellar writers – it is also true of a small four-member choir offering the most simple tunes of Obikhod chant on a Sunday morning. Four average voices will never sound like the trained voices of the Russian opera – but they can find beauty – first within and then as an offering of song. In that offering, other lives are transformed and lifted to realm of beauty that is Christ among us.

I do not wish to be foolish or dishonest: beauty, transcendant beauty is and transforming beauty is not the peculiar property of Orthodox Christianity.. God is indeed everywhere present and filling all things. And he desires that all participate in His life (which is also a participation in Beauty). I do not offer this as an observation of ecumenism – merely as a resurrection that God is free and “does whatsover He pleases.”

I do, however, offer this in order to encourage Christians to consider such things as Beauty and music – and many other aspects of our lives when considering devotion to God and the presentation of the Gospel. The world in which we live (much of it, anyway) is hungry less for a careful presentation of the Christian doctrine of the atonement than for an encounter with the true and living God.