Saturday, July 05, 2008

Preaching through the Beauty of Music

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A week ago, I was invited to address about a hundred Dominicans - friars, sisters, nuns, laity - on the subject of Music and Preaching. An abridged version of that talk is available online at our English Dominican Studentate blog, Godzdogz, and may be of interest to NLM readers.

However, due to the word limit, I chose to omit from that post a section which I wish to share below. As it is concerned with beauty, it is relevant to every area of the sacred Liturgy and indeed the spirituality of the Liturgy that nourished the saints. It also reveals Pope Benedict XVI's weltanshauung, for he profoundly knows that beauty alone will convince and persuade for it is a divine encounter, an experience of God himself, that must come after having heard the Gospel preached.

The theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar has noted that beauty has an “intrinsic authority” and it is “self-evident” in the way that it points to truth, goodness and indeed, to God. Thus, Timothy Radcliffe OP says that “you cannot argue with beauty’s summons or dismiss it”. If this is true, then beauty is a powerful form of preaching, especially for preachers of truth such as we are called to be, and we must not ignore it. Our Holy Father, who we know is not anti-intellectual, once wrote something about this that has haunted me since I first read it. I would like to spend some time now considering his words. He begins by saying the following:

“True knowledge is being struck by the arrow of beauty that wounds man… being overcome by the beauty of Christ is a more real, more profound knowledge than mere rational deduction. Of course we must not underestimate the importance of theological reflection, of exact and careful theological thought; it is still absolutely necessary. But to despise, on that account, the impact produced by the heart’s encounter with beauty, or to reject it as a true form of knowledge, would impoverish us and dry up both faith and theology. We must rediscover this form of knowledge – it is an urgent demand of the present hour.” This is an important realization and it points out to us Benedict XVI's many attempts as Pope to restore beauty to the Liturgy, and that includes a re-discovery of the beauty and riches of the pre-Vatican II form of Mass.

He then says: “Arguments so often have no effect, because too many arguments compete with one another in our world, so that one cannot help thinking of the remark of the medieval theologians that reason has a wax nose: in other words, it can be turned around in any direction, if one is clever enough. It is all so clever, so evident – whom should we trust?” Again, these words offer a challenge to us as preachers who rely on argument, persuasion, words. This multiplication of words is sometimes unnecessary and indeed, futile. The Church has long recognized this and we see this in the example of Christ. Jesus showed us how much God loves us through the beauty of his life and the saints reflect something of that beauty in their holy lives. Note that the pope is not saying that arguments are unimportant, but beauty must corroborate what we say; people must experience the beauty of the Church as well as hear her persuasions, but both together form part of our holy preaching. Thus Ratzinger continues: “The encounter with beauty can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the soul and thus makes it see clearly, so that henceforth it has criteria, based on what it has experienced, and can now weigh the arguments correctly.”

Finally, he gives an example of his being struck by beauty. He says: “For me an unforgettable experience was the Bach concert that Leonard Bernstein conducted in Munich after the sudden death of Karl Richter. I was sitting next to the Lutheran Bishop Hanselmann. After the last note of one of the great Thomas Kantor cantatas triumphantly faded away, we looked at each other spontaneously and just as spontaneously said: ‘Anyone who has heard this knows that the faith is true’. Such an extraordinary force of present reality had become audible in this music that the audience knew, no longer through deduction, but by the impact that it could not have come from nothing; it could only have been born through the power of the truth that makes itself present in the composer’s inspiration"...

... The appreciation of beauty is something that our noisy world has to re-learn and this education begins with us in the Church. Timothy Radcliffe OP suggests that we have lost sight of beauty because we “fall into the trap of seeing beauty in utilitarian terms, useful for entertaining people, instead of seeing that what is truly beautiful reveals the good.” I believe that Gregorian chant and polyphony challenges us to really listen, to transcend merely entertaining music and to glimpse the mystery and beauty of God.

Schola psalm I also should report that on the day I gave this talk I also had charge of the liturgy so we had lots of beautiful Gregorian chant at Mass and Solemn Vespers sung proficiently and enthusiastically by all present. The talk was well received and the liturgies were a great chance to put theory into practice!

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