Archive for July 29th, 2007

Music from Another Room

July 29, 2007


In the 1998 Jude Law film Music from Another Room, the lead character makes an argument for love, describing it as being like “music from another room.” Whether you saw the film or liked it, there is something in the metaphor of music from another room that has stayed with me. There is something about our relationship with God that is like music from another room. In this case I do not mean to infer the “upstairs room” to which secularism would tend to relegate God. Rather, there is a room in which we often find ourselves, where, for whatever reason, we have closed our eyes and ears to God.

It is in such times that “music from another room” occasionally breaks in on our quiet ignorance. Several people have made comments here about the effect that Orthodox hymnography played in their conversion. For me, the first instance occurred during my first year of marriage. We owned very little and confined our evening life to listening to the radio (NPR), or to a record of our small collection, or occasionally a show on our old black-and-white tv.

One particular evening after supper, I turned on the radio and was suddenly greeted with music that was clearly “from another room.” I could not recall having heard such music, such that I could say, “Oh, that’s __________ music.” I said to my wife, “I don’t know what that is, but when we get to heaven this is what will be around the throne of God.” We sat quiet and transfixed as we listened. We were especially quiet waiting for the announcer to tell us the name and author of the music. We were surprised at the end that it was by Rachmaninov. It was his Vespers.

The next day I went on a search for the album. It was published by the old Melodiya label (of the Soviet Union). I bought a copy – a two record set. When I got home it turned out that side three was a misprint. I searched other stores from time to time but never found a copy with the third side. It wasn’t until many years later (with CD technology) that I ever heard the third side – though I’ve never heard a performance that rivaled the old Melodiya recording – perhaps because it was my first listen.

But it was more than music. It was a sound from a world that I could only imagine – a world you only think about in your dreams. I was no stranger to good Western Christian music – but this belonged to another world. Strangely it occurred in the same year that I was introduced to Vladimir Lossky’s Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church as well as the essays of Solzhnetisyn (it was also the year that I took one year of Russian grammar). I did not know it then, but God was opening windows and doors from another room such that the sounds and the scents, the echoes of words would begin to form something of a solid reality to me. Eventually that reality took on the shape that is its own – Orthodox Christianity.

Not every Sunday has the impact of that first hearing – but many times I hear things from the choir that are indeed from another room, only I now know that I stand inside that very room. It is the antechamber of heaven.

Music and Scenes from Georgia (the Old One)

July 29, 2007

I think of our young Church member who is living and working in Georgia this summer and pray he has such beauty around him many times. The richness of the Orthodox faith has such a depth that very little has been seen in the outside Western world. Enjoy the day.

Reading and Being Read

July 29, 2007


There is one experience (at least) of reading Scripture, there is another altogether different of being “read by Scripture.” Both are quite valid but very different things. Reading Scripture is, of course, something we do all the time – perhaps so much so that we rarely stop to think about what we are doing. It is never a simple gathering of facts (like reading a newspaper article), nor is it like reading a novel in which we are simply entertaining ourselves. Scripture exists as a peculiar writing and not because of theories that are frequently put forward in fundamentalist circles.

In those circles we can be told that the Scriptures are what they are because the writers were simply taking passive dictation. This would be a strange thing indeed and would make almost no sense of any of the Epistles. The Gospels demonstrate a clear shaping that is more than accident. The writers seem to know what they are doing.

Several postings back I noted that the Seventh Council stated that “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” In the theological writings that surrounded that council the “do with” was largely explained in terms of “representation.” When St. Theodore the Studite wrote about the Holy Icons he referred to them as “hypostatic representations,” that is, of representations of the “person,” rather than representations of the “substance” portrayed. That is, when we paint an icon we cannot portray the “Divinity” of someone (such as Christ), nor for that matter can we portray the “humanity” of someone, such as you or me.

Imagine if you will a painting entitled, “Humanity.” I suspect what you would get would be something only a committee spending someone else’s money could love. Humanity, as the substance, or being, that we all share together cannot be portrayed – only when it is actually presented in concrete form as “Peter,” or “Paul,” or someone else, are we able to see it.

Thus the icons were defended not because Christ became man, but because He became a man. There is a difference. By the same token it is not possible to speak in the abstract about the Gospel of Jesus Christ, without having said something that becomes dangerously general. St. Paul was quite clear about what he meant by “the Gospel of Christ.” Thus when we read the Gospel in the Church it is always, “The Gospel of Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ according to ….”  The witness of the Church is that we find the same Gospel in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, and other New Testament writers. One and the same gospel presented to us – though its presentation is neither photographic nor like a news account. The Gospel does with words what icons do with color (if I may flip the saying of the Fathers).

Learning to read the Scriptures as we would view an icon can be most helpful, particularly if you are trying to read them in a manner similar to the Church and not in a manner similar to the average televangelist. Listening to the Old Testament, we learn, in colors of slaughtered Amalekites to see the representation of Christ’s defeat of the hosts of evil (and so forth). Much more could and should be said about this in a later post.

But there is also the experience of “being read by the Scriptures.” This happens to us when we cease to be the master of the text, and the text seems to be the master of us. This is a reading in which the Scriptures are speaking the truth of my life, and not just about someone else. Before such a reading we fall down. I believe that this is just as important a reading as any other, perhaps more important than how we ourselves read.

There are portions of Scripture that were always meant to be heard in this manner. Thus the telling of the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea is not just about what God did for our fathers, but what God did for us.

I will sing unto the Lord for He hath triumphed gloriously the horse and rider thrown into the sea. The Lord is my God and I will praise Him, my Fathers’ God, and I will exalt Him!

When these verses are read on Holy Saturday I always feel a deep stirring within me. I know that this song is not about Egyptians but about death and hell and everything that Christ has drowned in the waters of baptism. I hear in them of my former slavery and of my present liberty, and thus of the uncompromising love of God.

Reading and being read. Both have their place – but I confess to preferring Scripture to read me – to read me completely out of the bondage of my life and into the glorious company of the saints in light.