It was Michaelmas Term of my first year in Oxford. It was cold, and the wind and rain thrashed down upon the windows of Oriel chapel, whither we wended our way for the college Mass. The chapel, a simple but beautiful wood-panelled space that our own Cardinal Newman once knew and loved, still bears its Victorian feel. It smells Victorian. It is still often only lit by candlelight, as it was that evening, and its quiet glow was much appreciated as we gathered, arriving out of the wet. The beauty that followed is seared in my memory, not that what happened was particularly out of the ordinary. Rising from out of the hush came the thunder of the organ, a mighty plea for us to humble ourselves before the mystery we were about to witness, and we sang:
‘Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand; ponder nothing earthly-minded, for with blessing in His hand, Christ our God to earth descendeth, our full homage to demand.’
The first verse having enjoined us to silence, the final verse rang out with the song of the angelic choirs:
‘At His feet the six-winged seraph, cherubim, with sleepless eye, veil their faces to the presence, as with ceaseless voice they cry, “Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, Lord Most High!”’
Silence, humility, receptivity – and then song.
I was a difficult student of the piano. All I wanted was to bang things very loudly and very fast and make everyone think I was very talented. Luckily, I had an excellent piano teacher. Why he was wonderful can be boiled down to one thing that he instilled in me, though it took him several years: it was to slow down. Be quiet. Before starting a piece, calm down. Let there be silence. Only then, start to fill the silence. Let things take their time – be willing to pause for breath between musical phrases. He taught me to play the piano by teaching me to be silent. C. S. Lewis wrote something to the effect that in hell there is noise; in heaven, there is silence and music. Silence and music are not really opposites – they are two sides of the same coin. And that coin is loving attention.
‘Cantare amantis est’, Augustine once wrote. Singing is for lovers is my loose translation (I’m not good at languages, forgive me Latinists). Tune your radio or browse your Spotify and that certainly seems to be a well established fact, though you would be right to suspect Olivia Rodrigo is not going to be the subject of profound reflection here. The fact is, however, that people who are in love sing, whether that love is fulfilled or frustrated, cheaply or
profoundly expressed. Be it love of a romantic partner, God, country, children – it is people who love that erupt into song. There are very few nihilist ditties. Even their anthems mourn the loss of meaning, or a goodness they long for and would love. You cannot sing if you do not consider anything worthy of song. And we can only see something as worth singing about, if we stop, and see it. The human impulse to sing erupts out of quiet, loving attention. I am not talking about when you can’t get a tune out of your head, but those moments which surely must have been the genesis of our species’ love of music making. About a month ago I found myself looking out over a windswept scraggy cliff that tumbled down to a sea that was impossibly blue, and I couldn’t help myself but break into a song of praise. Natural beauty, prayer, loving contemplation of another human being: it is the overwhelming, silent awe before these things that invariably make me break out in song.
What can this teach us about virtue? Everything, in my opinion. The queen of the virtues is humility for a reason. Josef Pieper, the 20th century German philosopher, regarded humility as fundamentally tied to silence. As Aquinas would tell us, to love something we must know it in some sense. Therefore, the humble person first and foremost does not impose herself upon the world – she listens. She lets things reveal themselves to her, and unfold their goodness before her eyes. We are Christians; therefore we believe what God said of His creation when it came to be. It is good. Evil, being a perversion of the good, is only obvious to us when we see the good thing that it has twisted out of shape. The humble person, in giving quiet, loving attention to the world, is thus a radically more truthful person than any other. She is more capable of seeing the good in things – that is, seeing what they truly are – and therefore she is also more capable of seeing where things have gone wrong. It is silence and humility that give us knowledge, and if loving requires knowledge, then silence is a precondition for love. Iris Murdoch had a similar idea that imbues her novels: virtue is a kind of seeing – having the humility to see things for what they truly are. One of the most keenly felt injustices is when we do not feel truly seen. When someone superimposes their ideas about who we are onto us, assumes bad motives, thinks they can fit us into a box they have in their head for ‘problematic people’ or ‘silly feminists’ or ‘narrow-minded trads’. They refuse to be silent and attentively listen before pronouncing judgement. I am far from innocent in this regard. But we can do better. It is only when we have cultivated an attitude of loving attention that we then have the capacity to respond in love to what we see. In other words, we can sing.
Of course, some of us cannot sing. Some of us are totally tone deaf (naming no names). The important thing is not, of course, the particular mode of joyful, loving response to the good. But music does have a special place. There is a reason that it is considered to be the art form most integral to the liturgy, above architecture or painting. Music is peculiarly transcendental, in a way that bears similarities to the liturgy itself. It is, so Roger Scruton thinks, a kind of intentionality without a subject or an object, which means it can be mapped onto any subject or object in our own lives. What does intentionality mean? It’s hard to define precisely – but it’s the reason that ‘Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence’ opens with a steady ascending minor scale, it is the relationship between those notes, the solemn movement inherent in them that speaks to us so profoundly. Intentionality is what we perceive when we understand a piece of music, even if we know nothing about music theory. It is the difference between hearing music, and hearing a collection of sounds – it is the internal logic which makes sense of why one note follows its predecessor. The funeral march of Beethoven’s Third Symphony has a form and intentionality that is objective, that we can
mutually understand when we hear it, but the emotions and experiences that we map onto it – grief for some, tragic perseverance for others – are ways of taking the structure and beauty of that music and using it to express something deeply personal. The liturgy is similar. Granted, it does have a subject and an object – it is the Son’s relationship to the Father that we are caught up into at Mass. The sacraments allow us to join ourselves to the humanity of the Son, and so be caught up into the loving Trinity of His divinity. But it is transcendent. The Mass can be as important to me, a young woman studying at Oxford in the 21st century, as it was to a burly farmer in Byzantium in the 9th century. The transcendental nature of the Son’s relationship to the Father, and His sacrifice for our sake is re-presented to us in a way that, like music, is deeply relevant to the particularities of our own lives, but goes beyond them and takes us with it.
Will there be audible song in heaven? Who knows what the ears of our resurrected bodies will be like. But loving attention and joyful, transcendent response to the good that we see in God and in each other are what I have no doubt will constitute the essence of the heavenly life. There, having silenced our mortal flesh and all pride, we will join the angelic choirs and sing in exultation forever more: ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts, Heaven and Earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest!’
Anna Fleischer, BA Philosophy and Theology, Oriel