Last week, my church choir and I sang for the funeral of one of our long-time members. A terrible thunderstorm raged for the entire hour of the funeral Mass, shaking the windows in their frames and causing someone’s phone to scream the high-pitched wail of the Emergency Broadcast System. The pastor began his sermon with, “I knew Roy was musical, but I never knew he played the drums.” It was impossible not to find some connection between the storm and the life of the man we had come to celebrate. Was Roy, who was always soft-spoken in life, finally letting loose in the hereafter? Or was he up in the heavens whispering to the angels, “Shhh!” Our deacon assures me it was the former; another choir member insists on the latter; but no one who was present could escape the idea that the two happenings were connected by some spiritual truth. God spoke to the grieving in that thunderstorm, and we were reassured.
…Which is, of course, utter nonsense. Elsewhere in the city, streets were flooding, trees were being struck by lightning, life and property were jeopardized. Such things can hardly be regarded as acts of consolation carried out by a loving God. Nor is there anything unusual about a summer thunderstorm in Louisiana. They happen frequently, the result of very explicable meteorological phenomena. No deities need be invoked to account for them. To think that the thunderstorm was divinely timed to coincide with the funeral smacks of unenlightened superstition. Surely, we college-educated denizens of the twenty-first century allowed our grief to make us grasp at outdated spiritual straws.
I wonder how often such rational arguments have steered people toward despair. How ardently we humans long to hear the voice of God, and how resolutely we convince ourselves of His silence. We cannot reconcile the idea that a noisy instrument of destruction might also be a healing whisper of God’s eternal love. There are plenty of reasons to blame modern culture for our inability to accept such paradoxes, but in the wake of this very musical funeral with its boisterous natural accompaniment, it occurs to me that most of the music in our popular culture–even the very best of it–is complicit in training our minds to insist that life can sing only one tune at a time. One melody must dominate the song, while the harmonies march along in lock-step to support it. There may be room to elaborate and embellish, but there is no room for counterpoint, for an alternative point of view.
It is no wonder, then, that the narrative of a storm’s natural causes and effects–more widely understood than any private grace–should overwhelm all other narratives. We hear a theme that is loud, catchy, and obvious; it must be the melody. Any note that does not support it, any rhythm that refuses to be synched, cannot be part of the same song. We permit our empirical understanding to drown out the seemingly divergent voice of the divine. But this is not a triumph of science over superstition. It is a failure to listen to polyphony.
I suspect that, for the average American non-musician, the sum total of polyphonic music he has heard in his life amounts to a few random snatches from the occasional film score. Polyphony demands a great deal of its audience because, no matter how many different lines there may be, each of them is equally important. Every line is its own melody, a complement to the others, but neither synchronous nor subservient. That musical lines should move independently–weaving over, under, and through each other without recourse to ordinary chord progressions, without respecting that the soprano note must remain above the alto–is a difficult concept for modern ears to accept. Polyphony refuses to be reduced to something you can hum, yet it is rarely dissonant and undeniably beautiful. The voices sometimes echo each other, borrowing bits and pieces of each other’s themes, occasionally arriving at a cadence where they pause and breathe together. Then they go on, each to its own lofty heights or plunging depths, carrying the same text in different ways, until they all arrive at a single harmonious end.
This is what was happening at my friend’s funeral during the thunderstorm. Nature–that constant pedal-tone of life–carried on with its habitual song, but overlaid with it were other lines, equally important. Comfort for Roy’s friends and family was only one. Someone else might have heard a condemnation, a call to change his ways; another might have thanked God for a welcome rest from his labors because his job was rained out that day; those who feared the storm’s consequences had an opportunity (whether or not they made use of it) to unite their sufferings to the Cross and thank God for His mercy. God’s melodies are innumerable, written from the beginning of the world with a line for every single one of us to hear and heed and call our own. Every planet, every raindrop, every atom of creation dances to the song. It is not a song of harmony, with all the voices neatly aligned. It is polyphony, an intertwining of related strains, and we, with our finite minds, will never be able to read the entire score. We will never fathom the theory that structures it, but this is not our task. We need only pray for the grace to listen and join in, while we trust that the final cadence will come.
Now sit back and feast your ears on polyphony.