Many years ago a priest, a friend of mine, whom I had known during military service and during our subsequent university and seminary days, died—far too young—of a brain tumor. Our bishop preached at his funeral Mass, on the opening verses of chapter six of Isaiah—the great vision of the Lord in the temple, high and lifted up. And Isaiah heard the voice of Lord, saying “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And Isaiah said, “Here am I. Send me.”
Such a text has obvious utility if one is to preach about the apostolic ministry of the priesthood.
But the bishop chose, in fact, to take a less obvious line. Rather than dwelling on the apostolic quality of the prophet’s commissioning, he chose instead to find priestly meaning and significance in the second verse of Isaiah 6. “Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings. With two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and”—to use the lovely language of the King James Bible—“with twain he did fly.”
With two he covered his face, in awe-struck reverence in the dazzling presence of God. With two he covered his feet, standing thus in the most profound modesty and humility before the Mysterium Tremendum, the “Numinous” and the Holy, the Eternal and the Divine.
Ah, but “with twain he did fly”—and the bishop interpreted that, in a way which I have never forgotten, as the visionary, poetic, inspirational component of a priest’s (and every Christian’s) life and ministry.
For the best—not of course the only, but the best—textbooks for pastoral theologians (and that is what every priest must be) are not the ranks of theological tomes that line the shelves of their studies, but the living work of artists who are in touch with the living springs of creative imagination. That’s only another way of saying that theologians cannot direct men’s minds to God until they are themselves steeped in God’s world and in the imaginative creations and insights of his most sensitive and articulate creatures.
To say that priests depend upon artists to succeed in their vocation is only another way of saying that the enterprise of theology cannot come to life until it takes to heart the principle of Incarnation; for the starting point for each of us is not argument but heightened awareness of Truth. God so loved the world that he sent his only Son—not to teach us theology, but to love us into redemption and salvation. Now He sends out priests, not primarily as academic lecturers, but so that cor ad cor loquitur—that heart may speak to heart—in order that the harvest may be reaped.
This way of evangelization is necessary because—whatever the external appearance may be of our society’s religious observance—we live, in fact, in a pagan age. In truth, it is not even pagan. There is something missing in our world which was not missing when the Gospel was first proclaimed; something which has not been fully missing, perhaps, until our own lifetime (though that missing thing has been fading away for the last five centuries). The change is that from religious man to secular man. Some have spoken in terms of man as having now “come of age”—but that is quite false: what has happened is that man has allowed a vital part of his make-up to atrophy. In other words, we live in what Max Weber, the German sociologist, calls a “disenchanted world.” What this phrase means is that we live today with no socialized expectation of the evidence of God’s presence in the world. It is not a part of our collective experience. Such dis-enchantment is the price paid for leaving the charms and consolations of religious faith behind. Yet the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins assured us that the world is indeed “charged with the grandeur of God.”
In moments of clear sight and enhanced perception, the mystic and the artist do really see sub specie aeternitatis, in which, as Johannes Scotus Eriugena says, “When we are told that God is the maker of all things, we are simply to understand that God is in all things—that He is the substantial essence of all things.”
As Evelyn Underhill pointed out in her great study Mysticism, “Blake’s ‘To see a world in a grain of sand,’ Tennyson’s ‘Flower in the crannied wall,’ Vaughan’s ‘Each bush and oak doth know I AM,’ …. are the simple vision of pure love, the value of which is summed up in Meister Eckhart’s profound saying, ‘The meanest thing one knows in God—for instance, if one could understand a flower as it has its Being in God—this would be a higher thing than the whole world!’”
But contemporary society does not tell us that the whole creation is alive with proof of transcendent glory. If anyone testified to having seen elves and pixies this morning or having been visited in a dream by an “angel” or having heard a heavenly call, the first thought of most people would doubtless be of the need for psychiatric help.
We must come to grips with this situation, and recover the vocation of the priest in particular, and of the Christian more generally, as being one who enables persons to perceive the revealing presence of God in their ordinary lives and encounters—that is to say, he is to be an enchanter.
The enchanter is a man of the twilight, that characteristic coloring of known-and-yet-unknown, where the mystery of God and the longing of the human spirit meet in the light of revelation. And so today’s sickle in the harvesting hand will be, perhaps, the Isenheim Altarpiece, and T. S. Eliot, and Vassar Miller, and J. R.R. Tolkien, and Stephan Lockner’s Madonna of the Rosebower, and the Verdi Te Deum and Balfour Gardner’s incredibly exquisite Evening Hymn. I pick from my personal treasure trove, and each will have their own. We know (how well we know!) that these things have the power to move us profoundly and to bring us into the presence of that which is a mystery inexpressible and above all creatures. It has been called, and I have used the phrase already, the mysterium tremendum—a term that comes from Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy, maybe one of the greatest works of theology of the twentieth century, but now largely ignored or unknown.
Evelyn Underhill, again, teaches us that the medieval mind, more naturally mystical than ours, was sharply aware of the part which rhythmic harmony plays in the worlds of nature and of grace:
One contemplative at least, Richard Rolle of Hampole, the father of English mysticism, was acutely aware of this music of the soul, discerning in it a correspondence with the measured harmonies of the spiritual universe. In those enraptured descriptions of his inward experience which are among the jewels of mystical literature, nothing is more remarkable than his constant and deliberate employment of musical imagery. This alone, it seems, could catch and translate for him the character of his experience of Reality.
Those who would be enchanters might, therefore, consider some words of a Victorian poet, Arthur William Edgar O’Shaughnessy (1844–1881), that would become the text of a cantata by Sir Edward Elgar—which, rather mysteriously, contains echoes of his Enigma Variations and of the Dream of Gerontius:
We are the music-makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;—
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams;
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.
Of course it is impossible to give a cool and precise definition of this dream, this vision, for it is kaleidoscopic, dazzling, and ever-changing. At one point Isaiah described it thus:
As the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower and bread to the eater; so shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return to me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the things whereunto I sent it. (Is 55:10-11)
Thus the Prophet proclaimed the mystery of the word of God: it is like the rain and snow from heaven, which make fruitful the parched and barren earth. Just so, God’s Word goes forth into all the world, and makes that world fruitful in spiritual life, in words and deeds of truth and grace, “seed to the sower, and bread to the eater;” and thus man lives most truly “by every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God.”
But just what is this dropping down of the heavens, this storm of grace? What is this word of God that goeth forth, and will not return void, this word that endures for ever, though the powers of heaven be shaken, though heaven and earth must pass away? It is the inspiration of the prophet and the seer, expressed in human words, in paint on canvas; and in the ordered sweetness of Divine Harmony, the work of poet and musician.
In the words of John Milton:
Blest pair of sirens, pledges of Heaven’s joy,
Sphere-born harmonious Sisters, Voice and Verse!
Wed your divine sounds, and mixt power employ
Dead things with inbreathed sense able to pierce ….
For, as the Letter to the Hebrews tells us: “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
Such is Holy Scripture as the word of God: God’s word written. But ultimately, the word of God is nothing less than God himself. “In the beginning was the word,” says St. John, “and the word was with God, and the word was God.” The word is God’s own eternal and complete self-knowledge, the perfect self-uttering of God himself; the speech of God, which is not other than God himself. The word is the Son of God; the word of his power, the brightness of his glory, the express image of his person; as our creed expresses it: “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.”
And the word of God goes forth in all creation: “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth.” That word is the life of every creature, and “the light that lighteneth every man,” in all the world, from the beginning. And in Redemption, the word of God goes forth, made flesh, to dwell amongst us, that we might behold his glory, “the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”
The rain of grace descends, and the barren furrows of the parched earth open. As the rain comes down from heaven and waters the earth, just so the word of God in us must fructify the earth in all the varied circumstances of human life, in every time and place; must make the earth bring forth and bud with spiritual life, with words of truth and deeds of holy charity. In the Church’s life, the word of God goes forth and does not return void. The word of God goes forth, in words and sacraments, in signs and wonders, in mercy and in judgment, and is expressed in a myriad of callings, according to the division of the Spirit’s gifts. There must be poet and prophet; father, pastor, and teacher; artist and craftsman. Only by an infinite diversity can we begin to imitate the infinite unity of God; only thus the word in us fills all things, in every aspect of creation, and returns it all in praise of God. “It shall not return to me void,” says the Lord.
Composer and Catholic James MacMillan wrote in a recent issue of Standpoint: “In the 1970s many well-intentioned types thought that … ‘folk’ music and pop culture derivatives would appeal to teenagers and young people and get them more involved in the Church, when the exact opposite has happened. It is now thought that these trendy experiments in music and liturgy have contributed to the increasing risible irrelevance of liberal Christianity, and that liturgy as social engineering has repulsed many. Like most ideas shaped by 1960s Marxist ideology it has proved an utter failure. Its greatest tragedy is the willful, disingenuous, de-poeticisation of Catholic worship. The Church has simply aped the secular West’s obsession with ‘accessibility,’
‘inclusiveness,’ ‘democracy,’ and anti-elitism, resulting in the triumph of bad taste, banality, and a deflation of the sense of the sacred in the life of the church.”
But the Lord’s purposes do not for one moment fail nor falter, however inscrutable to us their working out. Who has skill to reckon the providence of God: that watchful providence according to which not a sparrow falls without your heavenly Father; that perfect knowing in which every hair of the head is numbered? It is the mark of God’s omnipotent goodness, as St. Thomas Aquinas remarks, that even from our evil, he makes good to come. Even our stupid mistakes and our sins may be, as St. Paul observes, occasions of more abundant grace. In the end, we come to bless our tribulations and trust more perfectly in God’s will. As the Gospel puts it, it is really in the moment of worldly ruin and desolation that we lift up our heads and behold redemption drawing nigh. The Kingdom is at hand.
The kingdom of God comes into being wherever God reigns and wherever His will is done. The kingdom of God is present in the people through whom God acts. “Hence the early church equated Christ with the kingdom of God because God reigns in Christ, God’s will is done in Christ and God acts through Christ” (Lumen Gentium, 5). Thus to proclaim the kingdom of God is the same as to proclaim Christ. In fact, the Church from its beginning, by proclaiming the good news of Christ, was being faithful to His mandate to proclaim the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God has come upon us if God reigns in our hearts, if God’s will is done in us, if God acts through us.
God’s word accomplishes his purposes; of that we may be sure, although we are in no way competent to measure that accomplishment. Our task, rather, is faithful witness—faithful stewardship of the mystery of God’s word.
It belongs to the role of the priest, then, to be indeed the pied-piper, the music-maker, the dreamer of dreams, the mover and shaker of innumerable souls, the maker of what John Milton called “Solemn Music:”
O may we soon again renew that Song,
And keep in tune with Heaven, till God ere long
To His celestial consort us unite,
To live with Him, and sing in endless morn of light.