Friday, September 01, 2006

Unexpected grace

Catholic Herald, 1 September 2006

When an apparently haphazard collection of circumstances combine in one moment of grace, it is time to question the apparent haphazardness, and to open up to the grace.

This occurred to me one evening this week while sitting among an audience in a darkened Norfolk church – an audience, not a congregation, mind you, for this was Art, not worship. After a short eternity of expectant silence we heard men’s voices raised in song, harmonising richly in a Latin chant. The voices drew nearer and a line of cowled figures appeared at the church door and glided up to a platform set up in front of the choir.

We had come to see a production of one of Benjamin Britten’s “church parables”, Curlew River, by a young company, Mahogany Opera. The church which lent itself for the performance was a mere stone’s throw from a genuine “curlew river” – the flat and wistful salt marshes of North Norfolk, which I’ve loved all my life, which many fall in love with (and near to which, alas, few nowadays can afford to live).

The story of Curlew River is very simple: a company of monks acts out a tale about a woman driven mad with grief at the loss of her only child. She hears of his sorry fate at the hands of a strange and savage kidnapper. She discovers that he is revered in death; she is visited and blessed by her child’s spirit, and her wits are restored.

The music is very Britten – hard to learn, but rewarding to sing and affording more sublime moments than anyone ever quite expects. I went home and started trying to find out more about Curlew River. It is not very often performed, perhaps because it is supposed to be done as a Japanese Noh play, which means that performers are required to go in for a lot more mannered posturing and stiff flapping of hands than we feel comfortable with these days.

But it was performed at the Edinburgh Festival last year, and Opera Now said: “A Christian reworking of the Noh play Sumidagawa, it centres on emotional reactions to the ill treatment and murder of a child - acts that, in themselves, call into question the existence and nature of an omnipotent and benevolent deity. The opera posits the idea of divine grace as being necessary to make such arbitrary cruelty bearable to those who live in its aftermath, though the austere, tortured music also leaves us questioning whether grace in itself is ever adequate for such a task.”

Isn’t it odd how both the opera critic and I saw and heard what we wanted to see and hear? After the Mahogany Opera monks had filed, chanting, out into the dark summer night at the end of their performance, leaving a beautiful stillness behind them, I was forcibly struck by the complete lack of irony in the work. I have no doubt that a professional opera critic, probably an atheist and far more musically knowledgeable than I, might well be “questioning” the existence of God and the adequacy of grace in his own mind, but I could not see how he could justifiably shoe-horn his own questions into this work.

If the monks were instead a band of psychotherapists, and their sung prologue had promised something on the lines of, “this is a story about closure and acceptance” I think the Opera Now critic would have been much happier with the piece. It is perhaps painful for modern music buffs to acknowledge that their musical heroes have genuine Christian faith, or at the very least a genuine respect for the tenets of faith.

Meanwhile, I found myself falling into the same kind of trap. An obsession with corrupted youth (and small boys in particular) runs through all Britten's work and I found myself jumping at the temptation to read into this particular choice of tale the self-lacerating guilt of a would-be paedophile. I thought better of it, for it must be as wrong to pick up a known aspect of any great man’s life, such as his sexuality, and fling it like paint at every piece of work he produces, as it is for a critic of no faith to superimpose his own "questioning" onto a composer who took faith seriously.

What this evening gave me was a sense of gratitude (and not just to my parents who bought us the tickets) - and grace. Here we are in a church built by medieval people, where memorials to an English nineteenth century naval hero mingle with crosses, hearing music sung and played by healthy young people from various far flung corners of the world with aspects of Western and Eastern culture thrown together.

And all in the name of God’s grace.

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