At last, Herbert Howells speaks to the sanctuary of my soul. Or, more truthfully, at last his music has penetrated the fat inclosing it.
Over the years, I’ve thought and said some dismissive things about Howells. That when you’d heard one of his Evensong settings, you’d heard them all (like Haydn String Quartets, and Palestrina Masses). That his organ compositions were little more than quiet-loud-quiet or loud-quiet-loud. That—ye Gods, how I am ashamed of this—he never let go of the death of his son. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
It’s tempting to say that his loss released energy in his work that speaks to my loss. But the Requiem that I now find so poignant was written in 1932, three years before his bereavement. Howells certainly channelled his grief into creativity, but early compositions speak to me just as powerfully, so there is something more than the outworking of his grief that penetrates to my Holy of Holies.
I wonder what it is. Is it perhaps no more and no less than the pursuit of beauty?
I found beauty in the early 1960s in Carlisle.
The biology teacher shouts “don’t you know which side your bread’s buttered?” when I bare my soul about music or medicine. The organ teacher borrows money from my parents, so can hardly encourage me to go against their wishes. I finally let hold of my grip in 1972 when I went to medical school. I don’t think I’ve ever recovered from that loss. I’ve been chasing and mourning it ever since. Is my addiction to the church merely a vain attempt to cling to that first love?
Today I’ve discovered Howells’ I Love all Beauteous Things written in 1977. Like the anatomist’s knife it slices open my insides in one stroke. It exposes my soul to the world. An unprotected soul is mortally vulnerable, but better wounded than icy, for the wounds do the work. Gerda and Kay in The Snow Queen, different parts of me, tears of love melting heart of ice.
We see events in the world that demonstrate, yet again, the three groups of demons (addictions in modern parlance) that Evagrios in the fourth century AD identified as responsible for the ills of the world: “those entrusted with the appetites of gluttony, those that suggest avaricious thoughts, and those that incite us to seek the esteem of others. All the other demons follow behind and in their turn attack those already wounded by the first three groups.”
“We cannot solve [the attacks in Paris] problem only through prayers. I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying. But humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it. It is illogical. God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place.” These words of Dalai Lama shout at me.
Take responsibility for your actions: your overeating, your overuse of antibiotics, your exploitation of other people, your consumption of natural resources … Face your grief for your sins, and for the hurts done by others. Then your tears will flow. Tears that come from the heart: herzwasser. The woman’s herzwasser that washes Jesus’ feet. Herzwasser that flows when we are forgiven, and when we forgive. Herzwasser that flows in the presence of beauty in all its manifestations: sounds, sights, smells, handiwork, openheartedness, and above all else sacrificial love: “O my son, my son, my son! would God I had died instead of thee, O my son, my son!”
The Kingdom of God is not about life after death. It is not about an ideal political system. My kingdom is not of this world: it is an inner kingdom, here and now.
It is certainly not a kingdom of control. It is a kingdom of liberating beauty in its protean manifestations. Beauty does not conquer by forcing, but by freeing.
I love all beauteous things,
I seek and adore them;
God hath no better praise,
And man in his hasty days
Is honoured for them.
I too will something make
And joy in the making;
Altho’ to-morrow it seem
Like the empty words of a dream
Remembered on waking.
Robert Bridges, 1844–1930