Canon Jenny, in her sermon for St Peter’s Cathedral Sacred Sullivan Evensong, explores the blessings found in entering a Cathedral building awash with glorious music.
In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen
Arthur Sullivan wrote the following words, words which may strike a chord with you.
Seated one day at the organ, I was weary and ill at ease,
And my fingers wander’d idly over the noisy keys;
I knew not what I was playing, or what I was dreaming then,
But I struck one chord of music like the sound of a great Amen.
It flooded the crimson twilight like the close of an Angel’s Psalm,
And it lay on my fever’d spirit with a touch of infinite calm.
It quieted pain and sorrow like love overcoming strife,
It seem’d the harmonious echo from our discordant life.
It link’d all perplexed meanings into one perfect peace
And trembled away into silence as if it were loth to cease;
I have sought, but I seek it vainly, that one lost chord divine,
Which came from the soul of the organ and enter’d into mine.
It may be that Death’s bright Angel will speak in that chord again;
It may be that only in Heav’n I shall hear that grand Amen!
Possibly not the finest literature, but in his poem, Arthur Sullivan is pointing to a truth – a truth heard in the chord that he struck in his dream-like playing of the organ. The truth of the possibility of a presence, a moment, a reality that brings calm, quiets sorrow, brings harmony in the midst of discordance, makes sense of what he calls perplexed meanings. He named what to him was experienced as a chord from the instrument that he clearly loved playing, divine.
Sullivan’s poem led me to wonder about what we do when we sit at an instrument we love, what we do when we engage in a way of being we love, perhaps walking, reading, listening to music, hoping that the pain and sorrow that we all experience, the perplexed meanings that all our minds wrestle with might find, just on occasion, what Sullivan described as a touch of infinite calm.
Many enter our Cathedral, day by day possibly, Sunday by Sunday, or on maybe just one occasion hoping for that touch of calm. What are we doing here, this night? We enter this beautiful building, spires reaching to the heavens, lifting our gaze to the possibility of God, stories of faith told in glass and wood and stone, stories and wisdom read and reflected upon, and then, oh then, there is the music. Each Sunday the glorious music of organ and choir, tends to our longing souls.
We walk in the cathedral doors our minds woven with the stories of our lives. It may be the stories of those we love. Stories of illness or grief, stories of joy, stories of worry about the ones we have been given to live alongside, to care for, family, dear friends, those we work with. It may be the stories of our community across the world, still shaken by the ferocity of the disease, Covid 19, that arrested our daily patterns of life with such speed that we had no time to reflect on what was happening and little company and few places in which to engage with our anxious pondering. It may be war and climate change. How is that after all we have seen of war, we are witnessing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, to give just one of so many examples of wars in our time and place? And then there is undeniable reality of the damage done to our planet by human intervention, and the guilt of it and the helplessness we feel.
The stories that we inhabit seem to find a place here in this cathedral. We grieve here, the death of a dearly loved Queen in a State funeral surrounded by meticulous organisation, exquisite music and deep reflections of an Archbishop. We grieve those dearly loved by our community, we grieve complete strangers who have almost no-one to weep at their dying. On June 4th, at Choral Evensong, we will do our part in celebrating the Coronation of the recently crowned King. We celebrate weddings, baptisms, anniversaries, and then we gather on what one might think of as the precious ordinary days. Those days that can almost seem drab, monotonous, until we enter and lift our eyes to the possibility of love. We know the possibility of forgiveness here. The things we regret can clutch at us, the single acts that we cannot believe we did, the habits we wish we could break. We hear stories of a Prodigal Son being gathered in by a Father who must be Jesus’ way of helping us know what he thinks God is like, a father who does not even wait to know if his son is sorry or not. The sight of their child coming home is enough to have love pour out in forgiveness. Might there be God, might God love like that, we are invited to wonder in this place.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams was in conversation not Arthur Sullivan or W. S. Gilbert, but another singer songwriter of more recent times, Nick Cave. They pondered the reality that is entering a church door, for Nick Cave in the wake of the death of his son. Rowan Williams remembered a student saying that “church is the place where you put the things that won’t go anywhere else.” For Nick Cave church is a place where one can “hold together doubt and pain and the sense of anchorage.”
I wonder about the sense of anchorage. It might be that a cathedral is big enough, not in dimensions so much, but a place that can somehow hold pain and grief and questions about meaning. Perhaps it is the beauty, or the scriptures, perhaps the music. Perhaps it is the sense that we gather with others who struggle as we do and truth can be looked at, if only for a moment, here. We don’t come to church for answers to difficult questions. One more had the sense that Jesus inhabits difficult questions. Perhaps the anchorage is in the sense that we are not alone in them. And so we can bear to give them a little time.
And then there is music. It must be that all who are gathered here this night love music.
John Eliot Gardiner in his book on Bach, Bach, Music the Castle of Heaven, quoted a statement from the contemporary German composer Gyorgy Kurtag; ” Consciously I am certainly an atheist, but I do not say it out loud because if I look at Bach I cannot be an atheist. Then I have to accept the way he believed. His music never stops praying. How can I get closer if I look at him from the outside? I do not believe in the gospels in a literal fashion, but a Bach fugue has the crucifixion in it- as the nails are being driven in. In music I am always looking for the hammering of the nails….that is a dual vision. My brain rejects it all. But my brain isn’t worth much.”
Music holds truth as Arthur Sullivan found. It may be that like him that chord of music that lay on his fevered spirit with a touch of infinite calm, was a once only thing, a chord that he will only hear again in heaven, a chord whose memory sustained him. But it may be that the rhythm of entering these doors, of gazing at the beauty, of hearing the scriptures read and reflected upon, of allowing the music to hold us, hints at that comforting presence, a little more than only once. It may be that we do not need to wait for heaven to embrace us only in our dying. It may be that God’s presence, if we might use those words, are found when we trust all our perplexed meanings, our doubt and pain, to the sense of anchorage we find in a building like this, in a story of faith, like this, in the beauty of music, and in knowing that here in the presence of one another, of longing souls like our own, we are not alone as we glimpse the possibility of God.