Music of the Spheres

IMG_0123On the 10th of June The Reverend Dr Andrew Walker, of the Healing and Counselling Centre at St Marylebone, gave the third of the series of lectures connected to Betty’s restoration. Andrew spoke about the Music of the Spheres, about sounds and silence and the importance of music to the Church’s liturgy. For full text of his lecture, click below.

Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patterns of bright gold: 

There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-ey’d cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.

Merchant of Venice quote – Act 5 Scene 1 – Lorenzo :

Here presented notion of the music of the spheres:  an ancient philosophical concept, thought to have originated with Pythagoras, with both mystical and mathematical aspects.  Inaudible (for most) but still representing deep truths about the planets and their relationships, the order of the universe exactly reflecting the pure musical intervals that create harmony

Picked up in a variety of ways by different authors, in the medieval Christian tradition and later, both in terms of the ideal state of harmony of a universe and a world centred upon God and the more usual state of disharmony:

Cardinal Ratzinger in his A New Song for the Lord speaks of the three habitats of the cosmos – silence of the oceans, song of the skies/heavens, whist earth shout and scream:   What humans need therefore is to learn silence and song…

CSLewis’ Out of the Silent Planet addresses the harmony of heaven, alone of the planets earth betrayed its calling and has fallen, alone amongst the spheres, silent.

But the church’s liturgy upon earth often traditionally presented as the ideal reflection of this divine order and harmony in heaven:  (and ever multiplying manuals of the conduct of the liturgy and the correct performance of its constituent players, from clergy to servers to choir and beyond bear witness to this).   So want to spend some time reflecting on the liturgy……


Hagia Sophia story:

According to the early Slavic chronicle called Tale of Bygone Years, Vladimir the Great of Kiev (C10th) sent his envoys throughout the civilized world to judge first hand the major religions of the time, Islam, Roman Catholicism, Judaism, and Byzantine Orthodoxy. They were most impressed with their visit to Constantinople, saying, “We knew not whether we were in Heaven or on Earth… We only know that God dwells there among the people, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations.”

  • What is performed on earth is ideally a reflection of heaven – in terms of beauty, order and harmony…

The Liturgy

Catherine Pickstock argues that the whole task of liturgy does require the act of praise that is itself surprising and unexpected, or in her words ‘dispossessing’ (1998, p177).  This ‘dispossessing’ is an appropriate losing of the sense of ego self which involves a lowering of defenses and a relinquishing of habitual patterns, so ultimately involving a certain personal as well as communal ‘ungating’ (1998, p29).  This ‘ungating’ of course underlines liturgy’s potential (which may not be realised) for creative transformation and conversion as well as the potential for danger.  We have to be undone to be re-created.  But given the dangers, liturgy, to function creatively and be authentic and sustainable, and for harmony to be preserved, requires then to be anchored, its goals protected.  How to achieve this?  This might be in study and theological reflection on the one hand on the part of those who prepare and lead liturgy as well as in the task of educating those who experience it.  It might additionally be in the work and action that flows out of it for all concerned on the other hand – an authentic engagement with society.  Both of these could be said to be on the horizontal realm so we should add as well the need for liturgy to be grounded vertically in an appropriate vision of and encounter with the transcendent God above and in an authentic interior life beneath or within.  Thomas Aquinas, in writing of beauty, requires the three essential characteristics of integrity, proportion and clarity (1989, p451), and these might serve as an articulation of the necessary balance for liturgical actions, and for the ingredients of words, music, actions and silence as well as the church buildings which are such an integral part of the liturgical action and the attempt to reflect something of heaven and something of the nature of our God.  Some contemporary liturgical writers may claim that ‘our liturgies should be understood properly as ends and not as means’ (Westerhoff, 1978, p91) but if the ultimate vision of the Triune God is no longer the rationale for life and worship, if liturgy is insufficiently rooted in history and corporate practice, and if it is unrelated to the life and ministry of the one praying the liturgy then further dangers will lie ahead.

Liturgical recitation and repetition, which are primarily actions with words attached, because they are so habitual and familiar rarely if ever catch the attention or invite examination (White, 1983, p95).  Even when all is well the openness liturgy promotes in the human soul, individual and collective, can lead to the influence of other more negative forces and so invokes the necessity of personal and corporate discernment.  For some the repetition of prescribed liturgical texts may even work to support a culture of conformity and acquiescence and tend towards the re-enforcement of the status quo: injustice, danger or imbalance is therefore the more likely to go unchallenged (White, 1983, p102).  Part of liturgy’s distinctiveness is of course that it tends to be tightly structured and controlled so unless form, content and inspiration are appropriately balanced its natural characteristics of ‘formality, conventionality, stereotypy and rigidity’ (Torevell, 2000, p24) will be over emphasized; and unless it is clearly linked to a greater vision and understanding its radical and liberational aspects will remain unrealised.

So liturgy always operates on more than one level, personal and communal, spiritual and psychological, individual and societal;

‘Ritual operates on those levels of existential reality that undergird the conceptual.  More importantly, ritual points to and participates in that primordial truth which is located at the expanding edge of our horizon of knowing’ (Westerhoff, 1978, p132).

David Ford suggests that worship is key to Christian involvement with all aspects of life (2007, p193) but that the God who is worshipped, and Christianity’s particular understanding of and insight into the nature of God, is key to the worship and praise that is offered.  Worship and praise is here a performance of scripture and tradition together that helps shape the life of the individual and the community of the church in relation to God, one another and the world at large.

‘Christian worship at its best has something of the fruitful combination in the Spirit of…deep engagement with scripture and tradition; the centrality of the Father’s relationship to Jesus in the Spirit; crying out to God; loving God for God’s sake; remembering the events of Jesus’ life and identifying with him in his death and resurrection; commitment and compassion in community; and orientation to God’s future, which includes the future of all people and all creation.’ (2007, p208).

Worship and praise therefore arise from and in turn feed this faith, and enable us to share in something of the wisdom and blessing of our God.  It is an expression of the relationship of desire and love that lies between God and God’s creation, expressed by a humanity that is immersed in the challenges and risks of daily living and which thereby is ‘being affirmed and affirming, being instructed and instructing, being questioned and questioning, being surprised and exploring new possibilities’. (Ford, 2007, p381).  Pickstock P194 – ultimately the liturgy is an expression of desire – a double movement of ecstasy and attraction, invoking the transcendent, and calling upon God to enter the worshipper.  The 2 realities confront and that which is physically absent is temporalized and personified. Heaven and earth come together and the purposes of earth liberated to match the realities of heaven.

Speaking, singing and silence in the Liturgy

Though psalms were regarded as lyrical poetry in the original Hebrew (Little, 1957, p37) during the early Christian centuries the psalms were primarily seen as comprising more prophetic texts and so were read more as one of the books of Scripture for edification rather than recited or sung for inspiration (Miller, 1959, p168).

The use of hymns in the Western Church (Britt, 1922, p22f) arises first in the fourth century, promoted by St Ambose and primarily as a way of countering heresy and promoting orthodoxy.  Hymns, like the psalms, can be placed at the intersection of poetry and prayer, in St Augustine’s words ‘the praise of God in song’ (1996, p677),   and as such they should, in many people’s opinion, be recited or sung rather than read:  ‘to read a hymn is like reading a libretto; the composer is not justified and the reader is not satisfied’ (Connelly pxv).

It was only later, under the same pressures of rising heresy that drove Ambrose’s hymnody, that the Church came to see the Psalter more as a song book.  By the time of Egeria’s account of her travels to Jerusalem at the end of the fourth century psalms were an essential ingredient in all aspects of the Church’s liturgy (Senn, 1997, p114).  The learning of the Psalter was for the second Council of Nicea the indispensable condition for the Office of Bishop and many were the monastic rules that bound each member of the community to know the Psalms by heart (Little, 1957, p41f).  Cranmer in compiling the Prayer Book directed the recitation of the whole psalter each month

Athanasius, writing in the fourth century, could reflect on the fact that the psalms embrace the whole of life, portraying every aspect of the human heart and condition (Little, 1957, p39) but their centrality for Christian worship is only in part explained by their apparently universal appeal.  For the Church has also come to understood the psalms to have been so moulded by the Holy Spirit as to carry a meaning far surpassing the original intention and sense of their first writers – the meaning later revelation shows to have been Christ himself.  So, for Gelineau when we pray the psalms we are answering God ‘in his own words’ (quoted in Jungman, 1965, p80) but we are also thereby, as when we sing a hymn, being thoroughly penetrated by a mystical identification with Christ’s body, the Church (Little, 1957, p44).


Sometimes musically described as grace notes or the notes between the notes which aren’t to be played by communicate an intention of the composer?

Aquinas speaks of silence as ‘a very great sacrifice we offer to God…a very perfect disposition for receiving grace’ (1867, p341).  So silence can be seen not only as in opposition to speech but also as something that admits to, gives rise to and is nourished by a different kind of communication (Muers, 2004, p15).  Bonhoeffer could see silence as the creative beginning for Christian speech and teaching (de Gruchy, 1999, p137).  But whilst silence has been used by generations in connection with prayer it can challenge and so be a cause of resistance or avoidance.  There is the oft quoted story of Jung commending solitary and quiet to an exhausted minister, who reacts with horror at having to spend time only with himself: “I can’t think of any worse company.”  To which Jung responds, “And yet this is the self you inflict on other people fourteen hours a day.” (Kelsey, 1977, p84). As Bishop David Bentley comments,

silence ‘attracts us, yet quickly eludes us.  We protest loudly that all we want is a bit of peace and quiet, but when we get an unexpected hour of space, we quickly look for something to fill it.  Even in our churches we speak about the need for silence far more than we actually allow it.  More than once I have caught myself taking longer over the introduction of a time of silence than over the actual silence itself!’ (1994, p17).

The reason for discomfort may be that silence ‘strips us of all the verbiage with which we habitually garland ourselves and leaves us, in a sense, naked’ (Turner, 2012, p56).  (similar to one of the  general functions of liturgy around to ungating?)  It may also be too big a jump from the noise and speech of the everyday to be easily accessible without discipline and practice.  The avoidance of silence can however have grave effects, as Pascal comments, ‘I have discovered that all the unhappiness of man arise from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber’ (no 139, 1931, p39).   But the acceptance of silence can equally be invaluable and creative, it can move prayer and the encounter with God from the head to the heart, from praise of God to a more personal relationship with him. A recent group of ordinands discovered ‘something as simple as silent meditation in the presence of God is spiritually beneficial yet all too often and easily overlooked’ (anon, 2013).  Campbell also comments that periods of silence ‘provide a more peaceful rhythm within an Hour than a continuous verbal utterance can’ (1995, p271).  Silence is also of course a key ingredient in the contemplative path, by which we come to ‘the discovery that, when the veils of separation drop, we see that the God we have been seeking has already found us, knows us, and sustains us in being from all eternity.’ (Laird, 2011, p3).  The 1928 Book of Common Prayer proposed a period of silence after the General Confession during the Ordering of Priests but also explicitly forbade its use elsewhere (Lowther Clarke, 1943, p15).  So on the whole silence can be said not generally to have been valued by the institution of the Church and its liturgical rubrics.


Proust’s understanding of reading is that our minds are fashioned ultimately by contact with other minds – in Scripture of course it is the mind of God mediated through the various scriptural authors that is the dominant influence, and by reading I include here the texts in the liturgy that may be said or sung.

But Proust goes further (ibid, p41) to speak of the importance of the spaces between the words and phrases read, for ‘in the intervals which separate them, there remains, even now, …filling up the interstices, a silence many centuries old.’ Thus through these interstices past and present can mix and in silence, during the liturgy at least, the eternity of God can be experienced in the present, and the relationship with God deepened and made the more intimate.

Hadot (1995, p109) speaks of reading as a spiritual exercise and comments that, ‘we have forgotten how to read: how to pause, liberate ourselves from our worries, return into ourselves, and leave aside our search for subtlety and originality, in order to meditate calmly, ruminate, and let the texts speak to us…As Goethe said: “Ordinary people don’t know how much time and effort it takes to learn how to read.  I’ve spent eighty years at it, and I still can’t say that I’ve reached my goal.”’

Ruskin speaks of reading as an art (2011, p56) and Proust of it as friendship (1971, p33).  Friendship, like reading, can have the aspect and character of a purely human experience or, on the other hand, it can be one of the key Christian virtues. Friendship and its resulting intimacy have been spoken of as one of the hall-marks of any proper Christian maturity (Collins, 2002, p19f) and the word itself shares the same root as the word freedom (Carmichael, 2004, p180), another central Gospel value. The Christian writers most associated with the notion of friendship include Benedict and Anselm, but above all Aelred of Rievaulx.  They drew on the Aristotelian distinction between the useful, as in utilitarian, and the useless, as in being an end in itself rather than merely a means to some other end.  Utilitarian motives for reading might be the avoidance of boredom and the purposes of distraction or for improvement and to facilitate some task.  Useless reading, as with useless friendships, will be something rather different – as Aristotle could be paraphrased as having said in Book VIII of his Nicomachean Ethics, ‘the most important friendships are the least useful’ (1951, p246f).  Cardinal Newman reflected the same point in his discussion of the Rise and Progress of Universities, where knowledge could be a means to an end or an end in itself, a means say of ambition or simply a part of human flourishing (1875, p195-199).    The reasons many abandon the practise of prayer may well be that it seems to have no point – its purpose so theoretical as to be meaningless.  But what if the very meaningless and lack of use is at the heart of the value of the Office?  Those who turn from it in despair or distaste – or simply disheartened – may run the risk of preferring more active or apparently ‘useful’ forms of prayer or more productive uses of time.  Milton’s ‘Blind mouths’ may well be the outcome, that phrase picked up by Ruskin (2011, p70f) and applied to the Christian who has lost their way.  Participation in the church’s liturgy may well then be best cast as an integral part of a process of befriending, though both the task and the outflowing friendship hallmarked by being useless rather than useful.   The liturgy enables thus the further and on-going befriending of Scripture, of oneself, of one’s vocation and of God – as well as the means of the further and on-going befriending by God himself.  For God’s friendship and his desire for friendship must also be useless – it does not arise from need but from a superabundance of ‘divine relational life’ (Barry, 2008, p.xiv).  The perichoretic (= interpersonal, co-inhering) dance of the Trinity, because of the Incarnation, reaches out to include and embrace all; reflecting once again the harmony of the spheres and the purposes of the heavens.

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