Monday, September 29, 2014

The Search for Home: Faith, Imagination, Music & Myth

An Evensong Meditation on the Feast of St Michael & All Angels

Evensong 26th Ordinary Sunday (28.9.14)

You may recall that prayer after communion (in The New Zealand Prayer Book) which contains the phrase ‘You met us in your Son and brought us home’: while alluding to one gospel story, that phrase carries the main thrust of the Christian story; our journey of faith, our search to make sense of our lives and find again our home, our ground in God.  

I suggest that this religious search is deeply grounded in our humanity and we find it in poetry, myth and music and I want to very briefly reflect on some aspects of this.

I want to begin with T.S. Eliot because yesterday was his birthday and  because the search for our home in God resonates through his poetry.  At the end of his Four Quartets there is this familiar passage
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
when the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;

Eliot maps our human condition as one of constant exploration but he has no doubt that as the source of our being resides in God, so is our end – and we ‘will arrive where we started’. (That is of course an over-simplified way of putting it - symbolically there is a profound difference between the lost Eden and the New Jerusalem.)

Like Eliot, but from his own medium of music, the pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim has suggested ways in which musicians cope with the explorations we all make in our living.  By way of illustration, Barenboim pointed out that the introduction to the Beethoven Fourth Symphony is a search for tonality that begins with a lone B-flat but by the end of the Introduction we are clearly in the dominant chord of B-flat.  Further in, the main Allegro of the piece, the exposition with its two themes, again affirms B-flat.  Barenboim explains that the purpose of this affirmation of B-flat has been to establish B-flat as the ‘home’ of the music.  Once that home has been established the music ranges into unknown territory but eventually returns.  This affirmation of the key and then the exploration and the return in an unexpected way are, he suggests a parallel of the process we all go through in our inner lives to discover who/what we are and then through many explorations find our way back the depths of our being, our truth.

The Palestinian critic and writer Edward Said pointed out that Barenboim’s explanation of the Beethoven Fourth Symphony is an allegory that corresponds to the great myths in literature – the myth of home, discovery and return: the Odyssey.  You know the schema of the story: Odysseus leaves home, leaves Penelope and all the familiar and comfortable things of Ithaca.  He goes to war, but after many hazards, adventures and a whole lifetime of exploration and discovery, returns home.  In other words Beethoven and Homer are dealing with the same deep human material. 

This is absolutely and quintessentially a religious and spiritual quest.  It is the grounding reality that Christian spirituality taps into and maps.  The vast scope of the Biblical story begins with the loss of Eden and ends with our yearning for home in the new creation, the heavenly Jerusalem, and foresees our eventual return - when we will know the place for the first time, entering through that ‘unknown, remembered gate.’

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