Tuesday, April 27, 2010

How can we come to an experience of God?

Credo: Trite music blocks our ears to the divine in the liturgy
Our worship enables us to enter another time and another dimension - a realm of experience beyond our ordinary human experience

John Shepherd

How can we come to an experience of God? It’s a challenge, because no matter how much we read the Bible, study theology, formulate creeds, devise systems of belief and draw up rules for best Christian practice, all these efforts are only partial, tentative explorations into a dimension that lies beyond any definitive grid we could ever hope to impose.

Which brings us to the worship of the liturgy, for it is in worship that we are immersed in the experience of God. It is here that we engage with the living God.

It is in the liturgy that we are able to enter into another consciousness, probe a deeper reality, strive for a sense of transcendence which lifts us above the mundane, and in the words of psalmist, sets us on a rock that is higher than ourselves. Our worship enables us to enter another time and another dimension — a realm of experience beyond our ordinary human experience, beyond all our known thoughts and understandings.

In monastic terms, the liturgy is the path towards an exalted “ecstasy”, a flight into the cloud of unknowing, the place where God is, and where the true contemplation of the creative stillness of God is possible.

And this is a reality which is beyond the ability of historians, theologians, linguists, biblical scholars or even pastoral liturgists to express. Their contributions may even hinder rather than help. The intensity and intangibility of this experience can only be expressed through the arts.

This is why music of quality is a critical element within the life of the Church. It is a necessity, not a luxury. It is neither a frivolous confection nor an elitist distraction from the real business of faith. Music of quality, in the context of worship, does not entertain or divert. It reveals.

By means of evolving harmonies, rhythms, textures, modulations, orchestrations, melodies, counterpoints, imitations, this rich art form has the potential to create an aural environment which enables us to contemplate the mystery of God.

Music of this calibre draws us into an engagement so profound that its sense can never be exhausted. Any work of art, be it sculpture, painting, literature, poetry or music, whose implications are immediately obvious and can instantly be grasped can never enlist our imagination, and so cannot equip us for mystery; and what cannot equip us for mystery cannot equip us for God.

This is why the Church should have no truck with banality. Yet, sadly, this is not universally the case. Too often, in a quaintly deluded attempt to achieve so-called relevance with a largely unidentified and notional constituency, the words of worship are denuded both of intellectual challenge and poetic imagery, and the music of worship is reduced to the most basic and arid of formulae. This toxic combination has achieved what many thought impossible. The emptying of our churches of those with minds to think, and emotions to inspire.

The power of liturgy was unerringly expressed by the prophet Job (iv, 15): “A spirit passed before my face; the hair of my flesh stood up.” Yet this power can all too easily be surrendered in favour of pedestrian prose and incompetent music. Badly constructed melodies and harmonies can only ever be transitory simply because they are musically inept. Rhythmic patterns devoid of subtlety, trite words incapable of stimulating any kind of imagery constitute some of the most powerful impediments to the possibility of encountering the divine within the context of the liturgy.

Not only does this behaviour testify to technical deficiency (an odd concept in itself for the Church of God to endorse), it offers nothing but spiritual impoverishment to a world clamouring for spiritual fulfilment.

And it goes without saying that the last refuge for those who deny the possibility of a depth of experience of this dimension will always be the accusation of elitism.

True art transcends the ordinary. It invites us to contemplate a presence beyond itself. It entangles us in the divine web of ultimate reality, and so creates an aural environment in which we can experience, in the words of Anselm of Bec, the presence of “that than which nothing greater can be thought”.

The Very Rev Dr John Shepherd is Dean of Perth, Australia

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