BY THE STREAM
Long ago I realised that the sense of meaning, or mystery, could be conveyed by anything – an ancient sacred place may have less of a visionary glow than the most mundane domestic object seen at the right time or in a particular light. This is how it should be if we believe all things come from God (if we use such a word). The mystery shines through a shop window, a routine experience, not only through “nature”, flowers and trees and the like.
All the infinite objects of the world come together in ever new ways, simple and complicated. Meaning or mystery is conveyed through a language of things, like words, in relationship.
I preferred to think of this language as a hidden music. Music is more than a symbol of this hidden language. It is an aspect of this language, the purest form of it that we can understand. In this case I don’t mean Harmony – the fixed laws that music hangs on – but music, made of many elements, concord and discord, light and shade, whether a simple melody or a symphony.
Just as we have to learn to work with the language of music, whether as performer, composer or audience, we have to learn the hidden music in the world, which we do by learning to become ourselves.
Or something like that.
There’s a fascination in the fundamental harmonies. I believe there are fundamental qualities in nature (or it as if there are) which are like the colours of the rainbow, or the supposed qualities of the planets. Understanding these helps to draw us to a knowledge of the unity of everything, as the notes of a harmonic series derive from a fundamental. These modes may be muses, each guiding us to a different quality in our own souls. We are made of the same harmonies as the cosmos. I spent some time in the College of the Muses, learning the modes of melancholy and delight, the patterns of the dance and the gestures of the heroic song.
But the music of the world is mixed. Thalia is the muse of Earth and the muse of Comedy. Learning the fundamentals of Harmony take us into abstract, lifeless regions. We need to learn Music.
Two years ago I was exploring places which seemed to reflect particular qualities, places where one of the muses or the modes was dominant. I am sure there are such places. They are not necessarily more sacred or magical than any other place, but it is as if not only do they have one dominant quality but that they attract things, events, thoughts, as if by a kind of gravity. Perhaps all places have an attraction of things that harmonise with their individual theme….
Here’s an example of this hidden music – something seen which demonstrates that we do not see the meaning in separate things, or only in what we tend to think of too narrowly as “nature”.
A village shop window, somewhere near the Welsh border, perhaps even in Wales. A display of a Heinz bean can, soup, a jar of beetroot, and a scattering of autumn leaves. This was a thing with all the beauty and sadness of autumn, something which could be called an epiphany.
Yes, the window was a thing in itself.
The leaves were the products of particular trees. The influences of the environment had made them what they were, the climate had made them fall, someone had walked that way and picked them up, selected them and placed them here. The bean can was like a million other bean cans, made in a factory somewhere, its contents invisible, but the metal formed in the earth, mined and processed. The label designed, the peculiar turquoise of the label chosen as a result of who knows what formative experience, marketing theories and artistic judgement.
The objects had been placed in the window and I had come to look. This event, my experience of the window, was a Work of God, thrown up by all these many elements in their dance. To some extent random, to some extent consciously formed. A revelation of the divine.
Here in another autumn. I sit with a sausage roll and a cup of tea in the abbey ruins. Stone walls rise amongst rabbits and cats in amusing topiary. More than four years ago I sat here planning a course of work, an attempt to learn enough of the workings of harmony to enable me to explore the music of the world. I might not have achieved what I planned to do but I did what I could.
I have always been susceptible to the autumn mood. The first of these dialogues was vivid with the delights of a Mediterranean Spring. Here is the inspiring melancholy which reminds me of the seasons when I felt a desire to travel, to be a wayfarer to the mystic west, in search of the mystery of the forests at sunset.
Always a fantasy, I have to say. I tended to find these experiences in music rather than actually travelling in pursuit of the Scholar Gypsy.
But the Autumn mood is welcome. There is still a sense of wanting to explore deeper into the mystery, a need to leave the College of the Muses. One can approach the pure Unity through abstract thought in the academy or laboratory, or search for its vestiges in the shadowy vale.
How can I do this?
A long time ago a fellow traveller (somewhere in the heights of Hampstead) told me that it was useless to try to explain these things. All you can do is raise your hand to the view and say “Lo!”. Perhaps the gesture will open some eyes. My way is to use music as a complement to images in the hope that the effect will be to help people look in a different way. I don’t aim to show the essence of the thing, just one facet, as I might have seen it on that occasion.
It’s about Reading the World. There’s a lot of the World to read. I should be, I suppose, a rather pointless exercise, but I do find that people, especially religious people, don’t see. It’s so easy to look for God in only the things we want to see. In doing so we see a limited God of our own invention.
It’s a good idea, in this autumnal mood, in this ruin-enhanced garden, to attempt to define the key points of my philosophy, or point of view, whether valid in anyone else’s eyes or not. I think there are five themes which have gradually emerged which justify, in my imagination, my work.
I note them, having finished the sausage roll.
All things are drawn by love towards their Idea in the Mind of God.
But the only Idea is the Word, the Image of God, of the One. All things are drawn to be an Image of God by having a Unity in themselves. All things express God by Being.
These “things” are infinitely varied. Nothing is single and separate. Everything exists in relationship with other things. Everything is formed from many other things and anything may be a part of a larger thing. A flower is a thing, a life is a thing, a glance at the window of a village shop is a thing – a Work.
Nature is continuously creative. Creation is a Performance. New Works are continuously formed and changed in the Great Experiment. God is infinitely creative and His works are infinitely free.
Nature is not a Chaos. Harmony (or Number) is the first created thing, the inherent law in all things, guiding formation.
Our own souls (or minds) have the same Harmony as all things. We learn how to enjoy the Hidden Music by becoming ourselves and knowing the “Harmony of the Spheres” in ourselves.
But learning to be part of the performance is long and difficult.
This stream, though there may be fragments of old monastic walls close by, is, surely, somewhere else? It flows in a deep channel through the grass, only a few feet wide, almost narrow enough to jump, if jumping were not too violent an action to make in this misty silence. The light comes from below the mist which is draped over the trees like low cloud.
On the other side of the stream she walks slowly, her feet in the golden, yellow and red leaves. If this had been another season she would have walked through flowers like Proserpine in her last hour on earth before she was lost and we lost the Eternal Spring. This low gleam beneath an indistinct ceiling of vapour hints we may be in an underworld. The sound of the water, though it flows over rocks, is muted.
Those ladies in that bright garden which I cannot bring myself to name are far away. I could not say that she had been there, but there is a familiarity in the way she looks downward at the treasury of leaves. Her costume may or may not be the habit of an Order.
I have paused. She walks nearer, only a few feet or yards away, divided by the steam. When she comes to a closer point, opposite me, she makes a turn, one foot not leaving the earth, the other tracing a graceful arc like a dancer.
If you walk in step with me, we will soon come to the bridge. We can converse as we go.
In this quiet we can talk almost in whispers, the almost imperceptible sound of the stream seeming to bring our voices together as a gentle accompaniment supports two solo instruments.
You see God as the source of all being, but is your God too remote, or abstract, or simple, to know and love?
Simple, yes. I can’t think of God in human terms, or thinking like us, watching, controlling, judging. God is the source, the ultimate Unity, from which everything flows. I’m sorry to sound so Platonic.
No apologies are necessary here.
Thank you. This God might seem abstract but we can only see God through our human eyes and minds. God, as known through Nature, can be imagined in human terms, as long as we are always aware that this is our way of understanding and we don’t mistake our own reflection for God.
There are, surely, two ways in which we seek to know God, in negative and in affirmative prayer. (And all life can be a prayer.) God can be sought as the source of all being beyond the Cloud of Unknowing, if we lift our souls above ourselves and all created things. This is the goal of contemplation.
And if we attempt this contemplation we have to leave behind our own ideas of God and seek out ultimate simplicity.
Yes, or we meet only the God we want to see – as we are inclined to do equally in our search for God in Nature, unless we see God in all and not only in what we want to see,
This is one of my concerns, and why I like to think that music is a way of understanding God in All, in the concord and discord, in forms and in the relationship of things.
This is good Trinitarian theology.
And learned from experience rather than abstract theory. I have always been led by the sense of meaning in things, music, stories, places, and the sense that all these things were part of one world, one language. The sense of mystery has always come first and all this interest in religious ideas, and sometimes esoteric ideas, has always been a search for a way of understanding something. It’s always led me back to music, but this Trinitarian theology seems a way of understanding how this world of meaning works. It’s just one way, I’m sure, and just my personal view of it. I’m not pretending to say anything is “true”, just establishing a starting point for my own explorations.
I am aware of that, and I see that everything comes from experience. We see reflected in the world in human terms because we are human. The more we are able to be human the better we are able to see God in Nature. Is this human image Christ in All?
It must be. I have to confess that I find it almost impossible to visualise Jesus as a person. There are so many unsatisfactory images around. I used to think this was a failing but I’m not sure now. Maybe having a strong image of Jesus gets in the way of knowing the risen Christ? Christ is imaginable because he is known in everyone, and everything, as the living Word. Even in the gospels his appearance seems to change. He is not always recognised. Mary Magdalen thinks he is the gardener and only knows him when he speaks to her. I’m not sure what happened with Thomas, but in some way his recognition of his Lord and God is tied up with the community in the locked room. Perhaps the more we concern ourselves with images of Jesus more difficult it becomes to see Christ in All.
They are the same. The risen Christ shows his wounds. Christ in All is Christ in these fallen leaves and the ploughed field.
We all have different ways of understanding. Some find the stories of the teacher easier to grasp. Some prefer to focus on the contemplative ascent.
The affirmative and negative ways are two sides of one coin. The contemplative may touch the vision of unity for a moment and then return to see the whole of Nature shines with one being. The wanderer in the forest, or the city, may be lifted to the vision of Unity by the sight of a tree, or a shop window display.
I hope so.
In your view God is simple and free, and we and Nature are free. There is no plan in God’s Mind, or providence, or predestination.
I don’t know about predestination. I’ll let others worry about that. No, but I think this is a completely orthodox attitude. It’s all a matter of what we think of as a plan. God’s plan can be as simple as God.
God creates freely. Everything is free. Surely this is a key Christian idea? There is no destiny of fate – only possibilities. Potential. We are free to grow. Free to go wrong and free to change. People can be put off by the idea of Sin. The important thing is that we can escape. Be forgiven. We aren’t weighed down by penalties but free to turn round and dance in a different direction.
But freedom doesn’t mean chaos. There is an inherent law in Nature – Harmony – or, I should say, of which Harmony is one facet. We don’t need to follow individual plans. We can dance however we like, with Harmony as a guide. It’s as if Harmony is the first created thing. It’s not a structure of what the world should be, more a law within things and within us. The only plan in God’s mind is Unity. Everything is drawn to express Unity by being itself. The only way Nature can search for Unity is in the Freedom to experiment.
The works of God are infinite, yet we see so little.
Works are forming, coming to be, on every level. A Work of God is something seeking Unity. The thing it can be hard to grasp is that these Works are never single, separate things. Even a flower has many parts and is the product of many influences. Works are made of things in relationship. Simply by being in relationship things reflect the nature of God. God, the Trinity, is about relationships. Things being multiple and being One.
A Work of God is not just a forest but our walk through the forest. Not just a person but a life. “Creation is Performance.”
Sometimes these Works are things we can relate to as they pass by. We experience their Unity. Sometimes we sense the mystery of a larger work – our steps follow a different music for a while.
I would like to think of stories as works – not just our own stories, or ones we might put in writing, but stories which weave through the whole cosmos. Sometimes we become part of such a story. Sometimes they pass us by. I feel there are particular themes, in the musical sense, which sing through the whole, occasionally being audible. These may echo with certain fundamental modes from the inner harmony itself. We recognise an unfolding text through its quality of mystery.
It’s not simple. It’s a lifetime’s work to learn to be a listener, let alone to be able to dance or to share in the work of composition.
It’s a human temptation to look at the world analytically. This is like counting the bars of a quartet but never listening to the music. The language of relationships is poetic, musical. Even the language of mathematics is poetic. It’s best not to define or analyse too much. I know I do it myself. I have to keep reminding myself that we can only touch these absolute truths lightly, as poetry.
So, there is Harmony, an inherent law, and there is the Dance. Love draws us into the Dance.
And Harmony is the first created thing, the only pattern of everything. Is Harmony, then, Wisdom, as spoken of in the Old Testament?
I don’t know what those ancient people thought, or how they viewed the world, but in some way it might be that Wisdom is Harmony.
Wisdom was called the first created thing. There is a sense in which the ancient texts are speaking of a law which was within creation.
It’s an ancient poetic idea, or an ancient understanding.
It was the awareness of Harmony which inspired the whole vision of the cosmos as harmonious. The Music of the Spheres is an echo of Harmony as a hidden principle in everything. It’s an idea that Nature is inherently good, that it has a law within it that guides it towards good. It isn’t always remembered. Sometimes people have preferred to think of Nature, and of matter, as being bad, evil, with only the things of the spirit being good.
We had, in our very slow steps, approached the ancient stone bridge which crossed the stream. We paused a few paces from the place where it joined the bank on which I stood to the bank from which she faced me.
This is something which has divided people through time. Is Nature good? Or do we hope for the intervention of God into a world of evil? Do we require laws, a code of law, to live by to escape the snares of the world, or is there a law within Nature and within ourselves which we can live by if we are fully human?
If we learn to be listeners and performers, with humility.
Is the Blessed Virgin Harmony?
I think that’s not a question I am qualified to answer.
Our Lady is a woman, a human being, not a goddess. We may not know her as she was, as an individual, the shape of her face or the tone of her voice, but we know she was an individual, a person.
The incarnation of Christ is not an intrusion of a supernatural being into a world of evil. It is a birth within the world of Nature, the Cosmos, a world in which we had brought darkness on ourselves but which had Good within it, the patterns of Divine Harmony.
Our Lady gave Our Lord Nature. In bearing Jesus she was Nature. As Wisdom, or Harmony, existed before Creation and guided the birth of Nature, so Our Lady was the Wisdom and Harmony which formed her Son.
We can know Harmony in Our Blessed Lady.
If we do not hold the Blessed Virgin in the highest regard we may forget that there is a goodness within Nature and that Nature, and our humanity, has this Harmony, this inherent law, within it. Through love we open ourselves to this secret guidance. If we forget Our Lady we may forget that we have this Harmony in own souls, a law in our hearts, and demand stated laws, words, rules. Alas, so often, we impose our own imagined Law on others.
God is Love. Love draws Nature, in freedom, to express God’s simplicity, Unity, Truth and Goodness in ever changing, ever new, ways.
Did we ever reach that stone bridge? Did we meet? Or was I still on the bench with my paper cup from the drinks machine provided by English Heritage?
So many possibilities for exploration and research, interesting and possibly inspiring in themselves – but, again, I warn myself not to be dogmatic or analytical. All I can do is say “Lo!”. I have my own, rather simple, way of doing that, with music and images, exploring places, just showing what I happened to see on a particular day, just one point of view. I hope I can continue to explore in that way, and to continue to explore music itself, pure music, to learn more of the hidden music or language, about the way things form and find meaning.
These conversations are just ways of making sense of what I do. None of these words matter. The Hidden Music is too deep, one might say, for words.