Monday, July 31, 2006

Cantus Firmus

Ruth Gledhill, the religion correspondent for the Times (UK) has a blog which has been resident in my aggregator for a while. I found her coverage, especially during the recent contretemps of the convention of the Episcopal Church to be quite helpful, and have followed her blog regularly since.

Once in a while, a real beautiful gem sticks out. In today's post, she links to an interview with the retired (Anglican) Dean of Westminster Abbey, Michael Mayne, who is dying of the cancer of the jaw. It is a deeply moving piece, and even at that distance, the radiant beauty and deep faith of this clergyman shine powerfully through.
But, in the end, the arts are perhaps of most spiritual significance to him. While speaking of his idea of God, “a God of love, but never an imposing love. It is so important to understand what freedom means in any loving relationship”, he cites Love, by George Herbert, and relates how a few weeks earlier he stood with his friend, the novelist Vikram Seth, outside Herbert’s house, which Seth has bought and renovated.

“I asked him to read Love and Vikram said, ‘I don’t need to’ and recited it by heart. That’s my idea of the spiritual: Vikram, brought up in the Hindu faith, loving this great Christian poem.”
Ms. Gledhill also links to a sermon given by Rev. Mayne in 2004 (Microsoft Word), entitled the Enduring Melody (which is also the title if his forthcoming book), where he develops the theme of faith as the enduring melody, the cantus firmus around which, in counterpoint, life ebbs and grows.
When the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray, and a little later, when he shows them how he wants to be remembered, he gives them a cantus firmus which is universal and timeless. He gives them the Lord's Prayer and the Eucharist. In the Lord's Prayer he gives them a form of words which will form a deep bond of unity between them and among all Christians ever after - a kind of signature tune, if you like; and it contains all we will ever need to express our trusting relationship with God and our dependence on him. And in the eucharist he spells out the four actions of taking, giving thanks, breaking and blessing which have been the four marks of his life, a cantus firmus for all who follow him and are prepared for their lives to be shaped in this same pattern. The pattern of a life taken and offered back to God, a life lived thankfully, a life broken and shared in the costly service of others.
I was immediately reminded of Henri Nouwen's "Life of the Beloved". In the morning, I must share this with dad. (And, I should add: just last week I made some derisory noises about the Anglican communion, motivated, in part, by irritation. As a friend gently reminded me, and as witnesses such as these clearly demonstrate, there is much to give thanks for in the lives of our "separated brethren.")

Ms. Gledhill also provides some delightful quotes from Peter Plymley's Letters, written by an early 19th century Anglican cleric who fought for Catholic emancipation. The quotes she provides (one has a "Hath not a Jew eyes?" quality about it) is certainly apposite and thought-provoking for today. She then lists six books by clergy that she recommends. And though it's not a book, per se, I would suggest adding the poems of Gerald Manley Hopkins, SJ.

Here's George Herbert's, Love.

Oh sweet Lord, so much wonderful stuff to read!


assiniboine said...

Isn't that a terrific article. Thanks. And what an interesting anecdote that Vikram Seth has bought and restored George Herbert's house in Salisbury. One wouldn't have thought the metaphysicals entirely to Seth's taste, really, but then he did use the famous "Into that gate they shall enter" quotation from John Donne's 1630 sermon at Whitehall before Charles I's court as the epigraph to "An Equal Music." Did you know that the Archbishop of Canterbury chose the feast day (if that's the proper term) of George Herbert for his enthronement?

Gashwin said...

George Herbet is a saint? I had no idea!

assiniboine said...

Well, sort of. There aren't any post-Reformation saints as such (other than "King Charles the Martyr" among the stratospherically high church, which doesn't do much for their credibility); but he has a day of "commemoration" (as opposed to a principal feast, holy day or memorial) in the calendar.

Gashwin said...

Hmm. I wonder if the practice in ECUSA (sorry, TEC) is different? Some years back I was at Trinity Episcopal (the Cathedral of the Diocese of Upper South Carolina, a beautiful structure, right across from the State Capitol) for their annual ecumenical evensong in honor of Dr. King. He was mentioned as being listed in the Episcopal canon ... well, not as a saint, but in the category of "prophet."

So, a calendar of saints, but no new saints? Seems a bit sad ... :)

assiniboine said...

Oh, probably not. Janani Luwum is over the west door of Westminster Abbey. (Reverend Luwum?)

I thought you said (when I mentioned that Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregational and Baptist clergy blanch and roll their eyes) that in the US evangelical Protestant clergy were Reverend Bloggs and do not in the slightest cringe at "Reverend Bloggs"....

Incidentally, a couple of years back, the CBC conducted a long run-off to choose the greatest Canadian. Tommy Douglas, the founder of Medicare, was the universal choice by a long margin. (Evangelical Protestants in Canada are left wing!) He was, in fact, a Baptist minister. So I guess our American friends would call him Reverend Douglas, eh? (Cringe)

(What a droll idea!)