Saturday, March 5, 2011

Spem in alium



I have never put my hope in any other but in You,
O God of Israel
who can show both anger
and graciousness,
and who absolves all the sins of suffering man
Lord God,
Creator of Heaven and Earth
be mindful of our lowliness
Spem in alium
Listening to this 40 voiced, 8 part motet this afternoon, with the sun briefly apparent, flooding the room, suspended in peace. It is one of my favourite pieces: voices melting one into the other, soaring upwards in supplication.
This afternoon I found myself pondering the words (adapted from the Book of Judith). 
I was reading 'Butcher's Broom', Neil M Gunn's novel of the Highland clearances. The first part describes a Highland community poised on the unknowing brink of disaster. It is a community that combines old traditional ways and the accepted imposition of a hard Calvinism. Here God is a supplicant of last resort and the imposition of a morality that cuts across more natural patterns of shared life: a God of anger or remote, capricious engagement. He could be the God of Tallis' motet.
But that would be too simple a charge. The word translated as 'anger' here is more usually given as 'wrath' and 'wrath' is an objective response to strip away all those conditions that distort our being (that make us miss the 'mark of our being', its full home, namely 'sin'): 'who absolves all the sins of suffering man'.
Like the wrathful deities in Buddhism that have purchase on our reality because they latch on our 'lowliness'  - all the ways we invest in not being our radiant selves - mark our lowliness, says the motet, yet absolve us, strip away all impediments.
This is not something, the music suggests, we do on our own. We step into the purging and transformation of God as a community. We cannot soar without other voices. That we are meant to soar, that the freedom of soaring is our freed nature, the music also gives, if you enter it, let it sing you.

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