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The television version of Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall is the latest account to challenge St Thomas More’s reputation as a courageous defender of the rights of conscience. Was he, in truth, a liberal icon, a religious fanatic or something in between?
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Once a month, as I drive from Plymouth to serve the Divine Liturgy – the Mass – in Torquay, I turn on Radio 4 to listen to the Sunday Service. After ten minutes or so I suffer from information overload. Off goes the radio and I resort to the simplicity of the Jesus Prayer as I prepare to offer the Eucharistic Sacrifice: Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy. Do we really need so many fresh challenges, so many novel insights and so many new songs/hymns to fulfil our most basic instinct to worship Almighty God?
By contrast, I was first drawn to the music of John Tavener in listening to his Orthodox Vigil Service of 1984 and for many years afterwards, privately sang some of his chant alongside our traditional Byzantine and later Russian Chant.
Orthodox Christians are not afraid of repetition. The Trisagion, for example, which Catholics only use on Good Friday, is used by us many times each day. In every liturgy there are three solemn repetitions before its doxology, and whenever a bishop presides, many extra repetitions. Repeating deeply felt words of faith and devotion embed in our human consciousness the divine dimension to human existence.
In this light, consider Tavener’s 1993 Hymn to Athene, which was popularised at Princess Diana’s funeral four years later. Long, slowly moving musical phrases seem to repeat with subtle variations, and play to a spiritual reality deep within us. To the listener uneducated in musical form or Eastern Christian liturgy, the work engenders a quietness that dispels the frenetic schedules of everyday life.
Quietness (Greek Isychía) pervades the Holy Liturgy and particularly at the time of the Great Entrance, when the gifts are brought out prior to consecration. We chant: Let us, who mystically represent the Cherubim and sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-giving Trinity, now lay aside every care of this life.
Consider also the feast of The Protecting Veil of the Mother of God, which is celebrated by us in October. The festival commemorates an occasion in 911 when Constantinople was under military threat. As people prayed in the suburban church at Blachérne during at all-night vigil, the fool-for-Christ, Andrew, and his disciple Epiphánios, had a vision of the Theotókos (Virgin) holding her veil over them and concluded that she would protect the city. I can never hear Tavener’s work for cello, The Protecting Veil, without being assured of the overarching prayer of Our Lady.
When I visit people suffering from dementia, it is inappropriate to give them new insights in prayer or Scripture, so I draw on the simplicity of phrases from the Holy Liturgy or Scripture that they have known from childhood. I sing to them the simplest hymns as I hold before them an icon or cross. The music of John Tavener acts in a similar way, and, if I had the chance, I would play them his music. His music lies beneath the conscious radar of existence, and leads many, who are outside the community of faith, to an encounter with the divine.
John, Memory Eternal!
Protopresbyter Gregory-Palamas is priest of the Orthodox church of SS Demetrios and Nikitas in Plymouth