So after a little break from my blog, I’m back to writing. The break was due to a little local difficulty which has hopefully become resolved. Time will tell.
Since my last blog entry, we have moved house and home, into a new Ministry. It’s a beautiful church (Holy Trinity) in a beautiful town (Melrose), and a landscape which calls you further up and further in. As my Grandad said of Ilkley Moor “If God made owt better’n this, He kept it for imsen.”
Actually Grandad’s diction was much better than that, but you get the point.
Today is a feast day in the Anglican church – Thomas Traherne 1636-1674 was a poet, theologican, priest, writer, and general thoughtsmith.
He was completely forgotten for two hundred years, but fortunately his work became known soon enough for Gerald Finzi to set some of it to music, and it is this synthesis of beauty of thought and spirit which made Traherne first known to me in Dies Natalis,
Today is also a feast day of sorts for me – it is ten years to the day that I was ordained priest. That was something of a battle, I recall, discerning and deciding what to do with my life. I spent a year in a friary and a year in an UPA parish in Liverpool, trying to shake the idea of priesthood out of me. Eventually it all came to a head. I literally had two letters of acceptance in my hands, one to the Royal Northern, one to train as a priest, and I sat by the post box wondering which to post.
Why did I choose to send the letter I did? Nearly fifteen years on, I still wonder, but I think it had something to do with Finzi and Traherne.
I’ve still got the original CD I bout, fifteen or sixteen years ago. Dies Natalis, by Finzi, and Traherne. Both, I read, struggled with the faith that the church and the world presented to them in their own ways. Both knew the truth of the beauty that God had woven into creation. And it was the perfection of that synthesis, that beauty and truth, which told me I could never be a musician. That was not my calling.
It’s not because I loved God more than music, as someone once put it to me. That’s like saying you like pasta more than you like spaghetti.
Music was, and still is, deep in my soul, it touches me in ways that nothing else can, it puts me in touch with the numinous, the beauty of mystery, it is worship without dogma, it is truth without doctrine, it is beauty and truth and points us towards the divine. It’s very difficult trying to explain to atheists what I think God is, and what faith in God is like, but when I listen to Finzi, like listening to Bach and to Tallis – well that’s not what God is, but that’s what God sounds like. Faith is simply remembering how important it is to listen.
In the end, my desire for a singing career was more a mixture of self-aggrandisement and the desire to possess the music, than it was a desire to fall deeper into that mystery. I would have been as a singer, how many people are with religion – I would have been stern, doctrinal, pernickerty, fussy as a musician. I needed to release the music from my tight grip if I were to let it breathe. Music was the hands that pointed to the divine, and I was grasping the hand, but I needed to follow where the finger was pointing.
So I have been a priest for ten years. And when I sing these days, my technique is not what it should be, but I sing more honestly than I ever used to. My only regret is that I don’t listen to music enough, and I don’t sing enough. I’ve never been able to have music on in the background, I’ve never been able to work with music on – music like prayer has to be something which takes all of my concentration. So my commitment for the next ten years is to dedicate more specific time to both.
Shakespeare said that the evil that men do lives after them, the good oft interr’d within their bones. I disagree. Evil, like all dead things, eventually falls away. Good lasts far far longer than that. As I think towards the future, the next ten years, I think that thought should be foremost. Good will always last. True beauty, like that of Finzi and Traherne, never fades. The Good news of the Gospel should always be that – to pour as much good and beauty into the world, because quite simply the more love there is, the better the world is. The more people listen to Finzi, the better, the more beautiful the world will be.
I’m giving communion these days to a congregation I am learning to know and love, people in joy and in pain, people of great depth of thought, depth of sadness, depth of life experiences, sometimes expressed in all the silly ways one does express joy and hurt. I give communion to those who are dying, those who are fully alive, those who are beautiful, those who feel ugly.
And often as I give communion, in those silent moments when the choir receives before the organ strikes up, I hear in my head the music of Finzi, who set the words of Traherne, the unknown poet of his generation, writing alone at night, with no knowledge that the beauty he poured through his pen would be read or remembered.
It is, remembered, Thomas Traherne. It is remembered, Gerald Finzi. And my thanks for it.
From dust I rise and out of nothing now awake,
These brighter regions which salute my eyes,
A gift from God I take, the earth, the seas, the light, the lofty skies,
The sun and stars are mine: if these I prize.
A stranger here, strange things doth meet, strange glory see,
Strange treasures lodged in this fair world appear,
Strange, all, and new to me: But that they mine should be who nothing was,
That strangest is of all; yet brought to pass.