Every Wednesday in Holy Relics, Martyn Jones explores artifacts unique to Christian subculture.

This is the first in a two-part series. Read the second part here.

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In the Dreamtime of some Aboriginal creation myths, the totemic ancestors of every material thing roamed the earth and sang. Each ancestor left a scattered “trail of words and musical notes,” as Bruce Chatwin writes in The Songlines, and these bits of song and meaning brought all that is into being. In this view, everything has a place in an ancient musical score.

Chatwin’s Aboriginal acquaintances are not alone in this understanding. On the same page in Chatwin’s book as the above quotation is a reference to Rainer Maria Rilke, whose third sonnet to Orpheus contains the line “Song is being.” Friedrich Nietzsche has Zarathustra say he can only worship a god who can dance. Finally, Aslan sings Narnia into existence in The Magician’s Nephew, and we can follow his tracks back to the first two chapters of Genesis where the Spirit of God, dancing over the deep, splits the sky and raises continents out of primordial oceans through poetry that may well have been sung.

Song is an ideal vehicle for creation; in it, space and time meet in perfect ontological synesthesia. Consider the aural vocabulary of a music critic, who combines a stock of words that denote temporal qualities with a larger stock of terms that evince warmth and coolness, various textures, color, magnitude, weight, taste — all features of things in space. There are songs that, having read good criticism about them, I’ve wanted to pull apart in my hands like a loaf of French bread, and eat.

It makes sense, then, that God would use the metaphysical interstice of music to make the stars come on. It makes further sense that singing is essential to the life of the Church. The faithful are only joining the chorus that created them; what else could they do?

Between services, worn red books with gold titles sit in racks affixed to the backs of pews, and these books contain unconsulted maps of time denoted with terms that evoke bygone epochs. There are fountains filled with blood in these pages, praises offered to a God of railways and steel, and entreaties to bless various western countries for national virtues that are enumerated across successive verses.

But during a service, worshipers thumb past relics like these until the light from the ceiling touches a hymn that time has not eroded. These are the songs that are sung at weddings and funerals; they are strong enough to bear up under the weight of the whole cosmos, which cosmos becomes weightless when carried into the rafters on the voices of those below. Great is thy faithfulness, we sing. Be thou our vision. You, Lord, are a mighty fortress, a bulwark that never fails.

Ascriptions and pronouncements; with each line, the congregation announces its love and worship, and in announcing them also maintains, strengthens, and clarifies them.

The Church’s songs have always been vehicles for its doctrine. Few might be willing to read labyrinthine treatises on theology, but singing is as near a human constant as is imaginable. As song unites space and time, it also knits the heart and mind of the Church together into an interwoven whole. It’s both heat and light. It makes diamonds out of people.

The Church’s songs convey its beliefs about God, but they also convey its beliefs about God’s world. Faith, that assurance of things not seen, installs itself in the created world by conceiving of that world in terms inherited from centuries of singing believers. Our hymnody is an ongoing act of co-creation. The world to come is made manifest through an anointing in language and music.

But there are many competing songs in this world, and beyond all of the sound our species makes, there is a silence that grows out of unimaginable distances above our planet’s horizons. As some find doctrines of eternal punishment for finite transgressions unthinkable, so too might it seem unthinkable that a song could resound in the spaces between the stars.

Which is to say, to sing is also to fight. The song of the Church is a song of resistance. To open the faded red book and sing is to see otherwise, by the paradoxical light of a sound. It is to pronounce the atonality of the world without to be a passing phenomenon that will give way to a rich progression of notes so powerful they alter the firmament, and make the universe echo in the synesthetic sight of God.


4 Comments

  1. Two things, provided they are not coming in Part 2:

    1) The creation, fall, and redemption of the world prefigured through music in Part 1 of Tolkien’s Silmarillion.

    2) Regarding the last paragraph, this story about St. Ambrose resisting the Empire’s Arian army through song:

    “When [Empress] Justina used Rome’s army to try and take Milan’s Cathedral by force, Ambrose refused to leave. But equally he refused to fight. His oratory was such that when the soldiers entered the Cathedral, it was to pray not raise their arms against him.

    A furious Justina then persuaded her son to make a law legalizing Arians and forbidding Catholics to oppose Arians under pain of death.

    St Ambrose continued his opposition and his refusal to give up his church, and in order to calm his frightened congregation, he taught them to sing hymns he had composed, splitting the congregation in two with each side singing alternate verses of the hymns.

    This was the first record of communal singing in church, and according to legend as the music of praise and prayer, seeped out through the walls of the Cathedral, Justina’s soldiers joined in the singing and the siege was ended.”

    https://www.sydneycatholic.org/news/latest_news/2009/2009127_1306.shtml

    Great piece!

  2. if he had read this article prior to becoming an author, perhaps today there would be a famous book titled “Everyone is Illinterested (In This Column)” by Jonathan Safran Foer

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