Spem in Alium 2

(Note: to make any sense of this piece, you have to have read last week's Sabbath Blessing.

Of course, having fallen madly in love with the Tallis piece when we listened to it at the National Gallery, I had to get the CD. I picked it up in town on Tuesday, a good recording by the Winchester Cathedral choir. Alex, the other homeschooled kid, came over on Wednesday and stayed for supper, and because he'd been bowled over by the music, I put the piece on the CD player for him, and he slid into the music like an otter into water--this kid is seriously musical.

This hearing was different: a casual matter. The weather was hot; I had every door and window open. The outdoor noises slid into the house just as the music spilled out of it, while the indoor noises circulated like air stirred by the fans. Passing motorcycle. French door noises as cats went in and out. Heavy truck backing up down the street. Faint noise of TV from upstairs. Laughter. Dropped book. Swish of cars. Flush of toilet, chug of well pump. Low hum of fans. Bell of Roman Catholic church up the street. Tortoiseshell cat observing loudly that food dish was not completely full. Through it all, the great motet chugged steadily along, rising and falling, swelling and diminishing, stopping and starting again.

It was a totally different experience from sitting in the rarified atmosphere of the National Gallery. It was, I suppose, a far less intense experience: like it or lump it, all the small side noises do interfere with your concentration, and my house's (er ... shall we call it casual?) visual surroundings didn't reinforce the Renaissance musical mood, as had the ornately formal convent chapel. A person couldn't be as thoroughly focused under the circumstances. The experience can't be as rich.

I understood, sensing the difference, why some people want to leave God in church. You can "do" concentrated Godwardness when the music and the liturgy and the architecture are all beautiful and all in accord: they reinforce each other in a particularly fetching way that seems to draw your soul right out of you and into the presence of the divine. Throw in some incense, and even the nose is gratified. And you can bliss out in depth, with no distractions, no one calling for your care or attention. It's a perfectly splendid experience. I can't begin to reproduce the effect of the National Gallery presentation of "Spem in Alium," not on my little bookcase stereo in a messy living room, with cats and kids wandering through and a souped-up pickup truck roaring down the street.

I can understand why God seems especially marvellous in church --but then the Gospel grabs me and shakes me hard and says, "But that's not the point here." If splendid otherworldliness was what God had wanted for us, he'd have skipped this whole incarnation bit and wafted us all straight to Heaven. Something else is at work here. Tallis spun holiness into each part of his motet and plyed holiness into its entire great cable, and now you can't get the holiness out--it's too tightly bound, too integral. But that's what incarnation is all about: that's Jesus' example to us, the Way of the Christ: to spin Godwardness into the fibres of our lives, so tightly that nothing can strip it out again.

Not that we're going to become ultra-good people, because we're all still extremely human. Not one of the real saints was what we call saintly. Peter betrayed Christ; James and John squabbled over precedence; Thomas doubted; Paul could be terribly arrogant; Jerome was a frightful misogynist; Augustine cared far too much about sex... I could keep going like the Energizer bunny. Saved or not, we're still very much ourselves. But we can come to an understanding that we really do need God, every minute and every hour. And having come to that understanding, we can then make the conscious choice to take the Gospel seriously, to struggle honestly with it, to try to live up to its message, and to weave that message into our dailiness until it doesn't occur to us to operate any other way. It becomes a matter of habit.

But that habit starts out with choice: the choice to take this Christ-way seriously, instead of seeing it (perhaps) as an interesting philosophical construct, but not terribly relevant to Real Life --something we can leave in church, as at the National Gallery we could walk away from the convent chapel and the Tallis, and get on to Inuit stone carvings. How many of us sit in church each Sunday and hear the Gospel, and we admire its holiness for those few minutes and promptly put it away the minute we step out on the sidewalk? How many of us let its demands and its cross-grained passages slip by us, because they look like too much work? Church can be like the mood of elevated peace you could get by listening to the Tallis motet in the National Gallery: fine for special occasions, but not for ordinary wear.

But the whole point of the Gospel is that it is for ordinary wear. It's not something fragile and precious; it's not an interesting historical artifact; it is a pattern of living, a whole different paradigm from the one we take for granted. It is deeply loving, but it is also tough and practical and very demanding. It sets standards and expects us to try to meet them--and not little half-assed gestures of trying, but genuine, solid efforts. It allows as how our efforts are sometimes going to fail, and it offers forgiveness for our failures--but it expects us to pick ourselves up and go at it again. This is the Way of the Christ, and while it's no stroll through a flowering countryside, its rewards are so immense that every hard step is well worth it. Set foot on that journey and you'll find yourself wrestling with angels, fighting the odd dragon, and taking the pilgrim way through lands with bramble patches and stretches of deep desert. But oh, the glimpses of glory, and the company of pilgrims....

The Tallis piece and the Gospel part company in one way: that the Tallis piece is heard at its finest and best intensity sitting still in a beautiful space with the world firmly excluded; but the Gospel is exactly the opposite way around. The Gospel grows more beautiful, more meaningful, richer, greater and more glorious the more it's actually *used*, and used in the most ordinary and everyday circumstances. How can we sit in church week after week after week and simply not get this? We don't realize at first that we must take the Gospel with us into our daily lives, or be false to it at the deepest level. We must choose between this world's ways and the Kingdom habit, because "no man can serve two masters". And our choice almost always involves the most ordinary matters: not great heroic stuff, but the ways in which we feel and think and behave towards others.

The Tallis piece drew to a close, and the CD player did its little clicky shift noises, and the new Mary Chapin Carpenter CD came on. Alex went off to find John and a couple of Super Soakers, and I got going on the dishes. I'll come back to this music, and I'll learn it a bit at a time until it becomes properly familiar. But the Gospel's with me in the kitchen, in the mess and sudsy water, at all times and in all places. And that's as it should be.

(for Bill K.)

Copyright © 2001 Molly Wolf. Originally published Sat, 16 Jun 2001
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