Sunday, June 13, 2010

Flesh and Faith, Appetite and Silence

Edward Bairstow's setting of "Let all mortal flesh keep silence." This is a hymn I rarely hear now. It's well known that this is part of the Liturgy of St James, one of the oldest liturgies that we have and still use in the Christian Church. I would have posted the Greek but for some reason my computer wants to transliterate it into English and it looks odd.

Actually, it's not surprising that this hymn is not flavour of the month for reasons that will become clear. If you like Moultrie's translation here it is:

1. 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.

2. King of kings, yet born of Mary,
as of old on earth he stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
in the body and the blood;
he will give to all the faithful
his own self for heavenly food.

3. Rank on rank the host of heaven
spreads its vanguard on the way,
as the Light of light descendeth
from the realms of endless day,
that the powers of hell may vanish
as the darkness clears away.

4. 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!

It's a good verse form for the original test, which is better translated as

Let all mortal flesh keep silent, and with fear and trembling stand. Ponder nothing earthly-minded, for the King of kings and Lord of lords advances to be slain and given as food to the faithful. Before him go the choirs of Angels, with every rule and authority, the many-eyed Cherubim and the six-winged Seraphim, veiling their sight and crying out the hymn: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

Bairstow follows this rather well.

This is sung at the Offertory before the gifts are placed upon the altar following an exhortation from the Deacon to stand upright!

And what a command: Be silent! Let everything be silent!

The trouble is, these days there isn't much in the way of silence. It's viewed very negatively by most folk. Silence is awkward. When Silence comes into a room full of people, there is a mad scramble in every person's mind to find something to say just to send Silence back out of the door. Why is there this antipathy to Silence? I suppose that the trouble with Silence is that frequently in silence we hear precisely the things we don't want to hear about ourselves and our lives. There is the danger that in the Silence we will learn just how little we are, how empty our lives are and how inconsequential some of our struggles might be. We may even be afraid that we will hear the voice of God and end up standing in fear and trembling.

Thinking biblically, off the top of my head, there seem to be four silences - the Silence at Creation, the Silence of Job before his Creator, the Silence of Christ before his accusers and the Silence in Heaven for about half an hour. Yet in each Silence we know a little more about God. What we learn isn't something that we actually can grasp, it's not really an intellectual knowledge, but we come close to God as He really is. There is Silence at the Creation because the only thing that makes a noise is God who breaks the Silence with his Fiat Lux!

Of course, the adept in prayer will be the first to tell you that hearing God speak is not like having a conversation with another human being. We can converse with Christ on the human level, but to converse with God, an entirely unique being, a being that is not as we are but bigger and fuller, well that's entirely different. We cannot expect to hear God in words (though we certainly cannot rule out the possibility - tolle, lege!) when we pray to Him. Indeed, it is in the Silence of prayer that He converses with us at a level our conscious mind cannot fathom. We are simply created deeper than we can ever really be aware. That depth is part of the image of God with which we are being created.

This is the same Silence that Job meets with - it's not the silence of one who is ashamed at the distress of another, but the silence of one who knows that words and argument mean nothing when facing the tragedies of human suffering. God has the compassion not to fob us off with platitudes, but to sit down in Silence and just be with us, thus preserving our integrity and God's respect for us.

Flesh hates this silence because it does not satisfy the fleshly appetite; it cannot be controlled or consumed or commanded in the same way that words can. Flesh will rail against the silence of God because it is not satisfied with anything that is not material. Flesh consumes only flesh, but cannot digest spiritual things. Our desire is for the pain to go away because we don't know how to be patient. The Lord Jesus Christ knew this even in the face of death by torture. He could have saved Himself, but was Silent in order to let the will of God happen. In turn, He was met with God's Silence on the Cross as He cried out the words of Psalm 22 - a cry of dereliction certainly, but following that psalm to its conclusion, ends in praise for God.

Again, the Lord is tempted by the pull of His flesh to resist the Silence, and yet He gives us of His flesh to eat in order that both our flesh and our spirit may be nourished. It is here that we return to the setting of this hymn "Let All Mortal Flesh". It occurs at the Offertory where they Mystery of the Sacrament unfolds - "Christ, Our God, to Earth descendeth, our full homage to demand."

I've often argued on this blog for Transubstantiation, and I know that many of my closest friends disagree with me about this. However, what I hope we all agree on is that we meet with God for real in some actual, more-than-physical, reality, whether we interpret that as substantial or not. I suspect most of our differences occur because we're coming in to the same thing from very different angles. Good! Let that be so! For the fact of the matter is the closer we come to God, the deeper the Silence. The Apocalypse is a mirror for the Mass and there is Silence in Heaven for about half an hour - a beautifully mystical statement at the opening of the Seventh Seal. As God reveals Himself more fully, the less we can actually sense. We are forced to walk by faith into the soundless expanse of God where the chatter of our minds and fears of our hearts have no place, no reality. Eat and drink of the Body and Blood of God unworthily and we actually lose reality!

We need Silence at Mass. We need Silence in the Church because that is where we meet with God. God's silence can be deeply infuriating but we can only travel with what we know by faith. God's silence infuriates because we expect something deeply definitive from God, an answer to our problems immediately. We have to accept God's decisions for our lives and to sit and listen. The minute we start filling the Silence with our own decisions, just to break that Silence, the more that we go wrong and stray from His way. God is not like us. His decisions and His Silence will baffle us, but that does not mean that we should suddenly start voting to amend the problematic situation and claim that this is the movement of the Holy Spirit.

If you want them, have your woman "priests" and "out and proud" bishops, your happy-clappy bands, meaningless hymns and liturgies, but they will only fill you full of noise and drive you further from the God who loves you because they all stem from a purely human understanding of appetite. These resolutions have been made because some members of the Church have been embarrassed by the Silence of God to "real world issues". They make us less real because they break God's Silence for Him! They are our impatience with God Who is infinitely patient with us.

We need to stand Silently.

We need to stand with fear and trembling because the effects of doing so raise us far beyond what we could ever imagine. See the Liturgy of St James for details or, better still, a Mass done well in your area.

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