I have just been listening to a conversation between three French priests and two informed layman on a YouTube forum by the name of Club des Hommes en Noir hosted by the French Catholic journal L’Homme Nouveau. Que signifie “être en communion avec l’Eglise” ? The rhetoric is semper idem, the “same as ever” of Bossuet. The less doctrine and religious practice change, the more it is believed to be true. It is the Aristotelian and scholastic notion of God, the immutable, the unchanging, the essential difference between God and man as God’s creation that fell into sin. The particular conversation I heard this morning was communion with the Church, Church understood as the Roman Catholic institution. The subject of rites came up and concelebration during Holy Week at the Bishop’s Chrism Mass. I was reading the same stuff forty years ago!
Umberto Eco, in his famous novel The Name of the Rose, offers a caricature of this kind of immobilism in our understanding of tradition. The Venerable Jorge, the hideous librarian, argues that knowledge should be preserved but not advanced.
Let us return to what was, and ever should be the office of this abbey: The preservation of knowledge. Preservation, I say. Not search for because there is no progress in the history of knowledge merely a continuous and sublime recapitulation.
When we think about it deeply, we find the idea repugnant, as we do for the opposite extreme based on idealism and nihilism, what is sometimes called progressivism. As always – in medio stat virtus.
My own mind was forever changed during my University days when I discovered Nicholas Berdyaev, and through him, Jakob Böhme and German Idealism. All great ideas can be corrupted and become twisted into communist ideologies and nihilism. Christianity itself was corrupted over the centuries, and we have to realise that it is not something we have or possess, but something towards which we aspire and yearn.
I have the impression of an infernal and unending loop of the same debates of decades and years, no one learning anything or contributing to something new. Indeed, all novelty is condemned as heresy, so in this washing machine of immobilism, it is all so depressing. I say this with respect of the sincere men around that little table in what appears to be a bookshop.
I ended the video before the end, feeling as if I had eaten some food that had “gone off”, a kind of “spiritual poisoning”. I returned to the music I was listening to as I work on a translation job. It was a piece by a little-known English composer, Harold Darke, who wrote in a style that was clearly influenced by the Impressionists. Unlike scholastic theology, music moves onwards and inspires the human soul towards its final happiness and purpose. I felt flooded with a sense of another notion of God, the immanence and transcendence that are within each of us, created in God’s likeness and image.
My calling is clear, priesthood through music. Vivaldi, Il Prete Rosso, was so taken with music that it transcended even his priestly duties of the Office and the Mass, yet he gave God to his faithful through music. I am not a professional musician, and my talent as an organist is limited. There are many pieces I cannot play because my keyboard technique is not up to it. So, I play what I can play well. I have composed a few simple choral pieces, but I don’t have the three other voices to sing them. I absorb divinity through music and contribute what I can to others with a similar sensitivity.
This is where being true to ourselves comes in. The world in general, including the Church, is too competitive, too much of a rat race. I have known a professional organist and organ designer who arrived at the end of his life having lost interest in the organ. What happened? We will never know. Pride, if that’s what it was, leads us to our ruin. I also suspect an extreme degree of saturation of people using this common interest to denigrate and destroy. See my article Exclusivity with its mention of Léonce de Saint-Martin, the man and brilliant musician who became organist of Notre-Dame de Paris in spite of not being considered to be sufficiently qualified by the musical establishment of the day. We must be humble and do what we can, and do that well. I finish this reflection with a quote from Oscar Wilde (De Profundis):
Like all poetical natures he [Christ] loved ignorant people. He knew that in the soul of one who is ignorant there is always room for a great idea. But he could not stand stupid people, especially those who are made stupid by education: people who are full of opinions not one of which they even understand, a peculiarly modern type, summed up by Christ when he describes it as the type of one who has the key of knowledge, cannot use it himself, and does not allow other people to use it, though it may be made to open the gate of God’s Kingdom.