The Chapel

I never was in the old Rideau Street Convent chapel before they tore the convent down and moved the chapel into the National Gallery of Canada. So I don't know whether or not it was a place with that feeling to it--that feeling that the Celts call "a thin place" or that Aboriginal people seem to be able to scent with their spirits. Maybe it was a holy place, and the holiness whuffed out of it when it was deconsecrated. Or maybe it was never especially holy. Or maybe it's still holy, and I just can't get it. Whatever. It's still a wonderful example of French Canadian Roman Catholic church decoration, which means *decoration*. None of this tasteful Martha Stewartish restraint. In classic French Canadian Roman Catholic ecclesiastical decoration, if it holds still, you decorate the bejeezus out of it. Good French Canadian Roman Catholic churches somehow manage to be totally excessive without being in the least tacky. They are an awful lot of fun.

Nonetheless, I hadn't meant to spend any time in the chapel on Thursday, when we took the two homeschooled boys in for an instructional day at the Gallery, a day full of Renaissance drawings and Group of Seven swamp-based luminosities and Inuit sculptured nightmares and some determined Art Instruction, which bored them to tears. (They liked the art a lot; they just didn't want to learn anything about Art.) We hadn't meant to spend any time--but when we got to the chapel, the museum guard whispered "the music is about to start; you might want to sit in and listen." There had been something in the paper a couple of weeks ago, some piece of praise for a special musical event that went on in the chapel. So the two homeschooling mothers looked at each other and then at the two homeschooled kids, with that strong-armed motherly look, and said, "Let's go sit down."

A bank of chairs in the center of the chapel was surrounded by a ring of loudspeakers: smallish, plain black, mounted at about shoulder-height on discreet floor stands. We took our seats and waited. At first, all we heard was the murmur of pre-concert voices, a ghostly sort of social whispering since we had the chapel to ourselves. And then that noise died away softly and slowly, just as it does just as a concert starts; and then the singers started, one after another. And another. And another. And another.

I realized almost immediately that what I was hearing was the great canon for 40 voices by Thomas Tallis. Not a canon for 40 singers: there are 40 different parts, each part sung by a single singer. Apparently, it's a nightmare to perform, because you have to hold your own part against 39 others, and you're on your own --just you and the sheet music. But it is an astonishing piece of music.

The guard told us afterward that each voice had its own loudspeaker, but it seemed to me as we listened that the voices moved around a lot--one bass, in particular, seemed to be strolling around the joint. The music swelled and faded, grew huge, grew small, stopped completely a couple of times, twined richly. It was typical Renaissance stuff, but even richer than most: solid and integral, as densely gorgeous as peonies and as formal as fleurs-de-lys. Sopranos lifted their voices, chanting boldly. Rich-voiced altos wove in and out like stately dancers. Tenors stepped gallantly; basses boomed and retreated. The music went on for what seemed like hours but was, in fact, about 14 minutes. I thought as I listened, well, if this is what heaven is like, I think I can live with it.

The words almost didn't matter. "Domine deus" kept coming up over and over, and that said enough. This was clearly sacred music. You could tell, not just by recognizing the occasional Latin word, but by the whole feel of the thing. If the piece was like a great rope of 40 strands, plyed together, then Tallis had spun Godwardness into each strand and into the ply itself. You couldn't possibly get God out again.

Maybe humankind can deconsecrate a chapel, but how can you deconsecrate music composed to the glory of God? It simply cannot be done. To de-sanctify the music of Bach, you'd have to de-compose it --take the scores apart, put the notes back in the compositor's box, strip out the accidentals and break up the staves for scrap music. But then (my husband observes) the music would simply insist on coming back together again: the staves reassembling spontaneously, clefs springing back into neat curls, notes leaping eagerly back into position, accidentals popping in at all the right places. What Bach and God have put together, no human being can separate.

In the chapel, music re-sanctified what had become a beautiful but sterile space. A friend who stayed there for three reiterations, when the chapel was crowded with listeners, said that she'd watched as people's faces changed. The silence as they listened was (she said) not quite like the silence of people paying courteous attention to good music. You see the same thing at Christmas: how faces soften at the sound of a quiet pastorale woven in love for the Christ Child; how joy steps solemnly out of the big traditional hymns, how vulnerability shines soft all through the lullabies for this tender babe. It can't be helped. Music instinct with God stays that way, and it seduces anyone it touches.

I wondered, listening, how someone who loves music and rejects God would react to this. Yes, all the beauty is deeply seductive; you could bliss out staring at all the gilding, all the carving, the eye rejoicing in complexity and the ear glorying in the music --ear and eye together as united as nose and mouth are in tasting a fine wine. You could do that. And you'd miss the whole thing.

(And conversely, a God-centered person can sit in a plain grey room, full of plain grey silence, and still feel as prayerful as I felt, surrounded by this beauty. In fact, sometimes Godwardness has an easier time of it in plain grey spaces, full of nothing but clean dry air. Depends where the soul is in its journey, I suspect.)

You can turn your back on God, choosing to believe that this religion shit is all human self-delusion. After all, there's no proof that God exists, is there? The problem is that there's also no proof that God doesn't exist. It's unprovable one way or the other. So it really is a matter of choosing to believe or not believe. Belief is not certainty: it's entertaining a daily supposition, a matter of ordinary choice.

But belief opens up this music, adds all the dimensions that you miss if you're being a mere intellectual or aesthete. Belief knows where the hope lies. Belief hears the Godwardness twined into this music, and the music gains immensely when it's heard that way.

For me, I have sufficient certainty that God is real, that God is love, and that God has been busily grace-full in my life. I don't need proof any more: I have both faith and belief. But if I were starting out all over again, coming to all this religion shit with nothing but a naked shivering scrap of hope, there would be one thing I could cling to, one strong presupposition that God is real: that whatever else J.S. Bach was, he was no fool. The "something" in music like this, that softens the faces of a busy lunchtime Ottawa crowd--the "something" that cannot be stripped out of the music and that calls out to the soul: maybe this is all the evidence for God we need?

Copyright © 2001 Molly Wolf. Originally published Sat, 09 Jun 2001
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