“Mark the Music” and the Dance: A Meditation on Cosmic Joy
From harmony, from heavenly harmony
This universal frame began
When nature underneath a heap of jarring atoms lay
And could not heave her head.
These four lines are from John Dryden’s poem “A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day” and they illustrate, as Renaissance scholar E.M.W. Tillyard notes, how the West from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance believed that God sang the universe into existence. Through “creative love… the warring atoms” learned “to move in order.” Can you imagine it? Stop for a moment and picture in your mind a dark, endless sea. You hear the wind fighting the waves, and as you stand on the barren shore the cold water aimlessly engulfs your feet. A lump develops in your throat and your soul feels weary. But then you hear something—a strong, sweet note kisses the ocean, and as the note grows stronger, the waves begin to laugh. The wind, a bit ashamed of itself, begins to chuckle, wondering why it ever thought it reasonable to beat its fists against the sea.
A light now shines in the east, the scent of frankincense hovers over the waters, and out of the light come thousands of birds—cranes, cardinals, owls, peacocks, eagles, doves—you can’t number how many kinds you see. And as the birds near the shore, they dance upon the air in circles, lines, and pairs while the stars slowly poke their faces through the thick sky. You blink, and toss your head; that lump in your throat is gone, and when a flock of sparrows land about your feet, you join them as they dance to the song that gave them life—and God saw that it was good.
Yes, not only did God fashion the universe through song, but as the Medieval and Renaissance thinker believed, He taught His creation how to dance to His music. He gave each star, planet, flower, beast, and person a role in His cosmic dance of love. The Renaissance poet Sir John Davies in his poem Orchestra states, “Kind nature first doth cause all things to love / Love makes them dance and in just order move.” Creation was made to love, and through love one lives his or her life, dancing in harmony with God and nature. Under this cosmology, Tillyard tells us that even though “the path of each [created thing] is different, yet all the paths together make up a perfect whole,” dancing in step to God’s creation song. Similar to St. Paul’s body of Christ analogy, which illustrates the diversity and unity in the Church, so the analogy of the cosmic dance underscores “the dignity of all creation”; since God has given each member of the “universe” a specific role to play, “no part is superfluous.”
I was introduced to Medieval and Renaissance cosmology years ago in an undergraduate Shakespeare course. I was reading The Merchant of Venice, and I remember in class we paid special attention to Lorenzo and Jessica’s conversation on the efficacy of music. Lorenzo, seeking to comfort and instruct the melancholy Jessica, encourages her to look at the stars and let the music of heaven “creep” into her ears: “There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st / But in his motion like an angel sings.” The song and dance of the stars and planets, though inaudible to fallen man, can still uplift the weary soul who is attuned to “the touches of sweet harmony.”
However, Lorenzo warns Jessica, “The man that hath no music in himself, / Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds” is not trustworthy, but “fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils.” Jessica must “Mark the music”; she must allow herself to be “attentive” to God’s creation song, so that her sadness can be exchanged for joy.
Jessica has lost her footing because of grief; she has lost the ability to participate in the dance of love that God has bestowed upon His creation. Having left her father Shylock’s harsh home to secretly marry Lorenzo, Jessica finds herself in limbo. She has embraced her new Christian faith, but she still carries the burden of her old way of life, a life of condemnation and not grace. She tells Lorenzo that all she can feel is sadness when she “hear[s] sweet music.”
And so Lorenzo’s reply is meant to prompt her to turn her spirit to the right voices—to the right dance. Jessica’s life may mirror Dryden’s primeval chaos, “When nature underneath a heap of jarring atoms lay,” but it certainly doesn’t have to remain that way for her if she allows herself to rest in God’s grace. “The power of [the] sacred lays” which caused “The spheres… to move / And s[i]ng the great Creator’s praise,” can heal the wounds of her soul. The Psalmist says, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” Like a ladder, the stars with their music can direct a person to the chief musician, the author of the “sacred lays” and the source of grace.
Our modern world is like an empty city on the edge of a desert under a gaping sky. Our natural philosophers have become skeptics. No longer a friend of metaphysics, the natural philosopher—who now prefers to be called a scientist—sees life only at the molecular level. The cosmos has become a silent universe, and the sensitive soul agrees with Poe that despite the efficiency of science, little comfort or meaning is found in its narrow scope. “Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart / Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?” Thus Christians born into modernity are caught between two kingdoms: the kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of rationalism. The Christian mythos portrayed by Dryden and Shakespeare has for so long been buried that the majority of believers today have not had the privilege of allowing their imaginations to delight in its images that move and instruct us to fashion our lives on God’s grace.
The cosmic dance ennobles the whole person and reinforces what the Bible has always taught: that all people are sacred, and made for love, and that nature, despite the fall, still actively and gracefully worships God, declaring His mercies in all seasons. For at its core, that is the chief beauty of the cosmic dance metaphor, the idea that God sang life into existence through love and sustains it with His love. It gives the theological definition of grace a body, and by this I mean that it shows us what living a life built on divine unmerited favor looks like. To the Renaissance poet nature moves or dances with grace, and since the word grace denotes “simple elegance or refinement of movement,” as well as the bountiful and forgiving love of God, an image is crafted that unifies the body with the mind and will that receives the spirit of God.
To live a Christian life then means that sorrow is no longer primary but peripheral, for God’s holy music underpins his or her life. As G.K. Chesteron observes, “Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial.” Thus, like Jessica in the Merchant of Venice, weary Christians with their imaginations attuned to the melody of God can rest knowing that divine grace embraces the world, the stars, and humanity.
A joy to read! Thank-you!
Glad to hear it!
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