Chasing Francis: Why I Love Music & Art

The oldest known icon of St Francis ca 1230

The oldest known icon of St Francis of Assisi, ca. 1230 (Church of San Fransesco, Pescia)

I’ve just finished reading Ian Cron’s book, Chasing Francis (2010: Navpress). Wow! What a history/ theology/ philosophy/ creativity/ post-modernity lesson it was. I can’t believe how much of my being resonated with the words in this book about an ancient Saint!

I love music and art. I always have, to some degree, and this love has grown and changed over the years. I always knew there was something in the human spirit that seemed to understand the language of the arts, but this was so much more driven home to me in chapter seven of Chasing Francis. Following is a portion of it where we meet up with the main character, Chase Falson, and a new friend, Carla Mellini (an accomplished cellist he meets in Rome), at a concert.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

That evening, as I read the program, I saw why Carla was so excited about attending this performance— the orchestra was playing Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor. From the first note to the last, the concert was electrifying. Every so often I would glance at Carla, who, I could tell, was enraptured. Her fingers couldn’t stay still. They mimicked every note the cellist played. I was pleasantly surprised to see that one of my favorite pieces, Finzi’s Ecologue for Piano and String Orchestra, op. 10, was part of the evening’s program as well. The Ecologue is lyrical and haunting; it surfaces all the unfulfilled desires of your life. My father always told me that my disdain for most atonal works was an indication of my lack of musical sophistication. One more thing I didn’t get right.

When the final note was played, Carla was the first person to leap to her feet and cry, “Bravo!” When the applause finally subsided, she grabbed both my hands and said, “Wasn’t it magnificent?”

*  *  *

The post-concert lecture was held in a. small rehearsal space near the main hail.

The speaker was Liam Cudder, a British musicologist from Cambridge. I was prepared to see a C. S. Lewis type—a portly man wearing an old houndstooth jacket with leather patches on the elbows, trousers wrinkled from top to bottom. Cudder couldn’t have been more different. He was elegantly dressed in a double-breasted blue blazer with gold buttons, perfectly tailored gray flannels, and expensive-looking tassel loafers. His accent betrayed an upper-class pedigree, but there was nothing condescending about him; in fact, he was boyish and animated. He spoke for nearly an hour-deconstructing and analyzing the pieces we’d heard, helping us discover the brilliance of Finzi and Elgar.

Toward the end of the lecture, his remarks took a peculiar turn. CCJ have spoken for what must seem like an eternity to some of you.” The audience laughed. “Now I am interested in knowing what you felt during the concert,” he said.

There was an awkward silence. Finally one brave soul said, “Joy.” “Grateful” someone else called out.

Cudder listened to a handful of responses, nodding his head after every reply.

I am always brought to tears when I hear a marvelous performance followed, by a standing ovation,” he said. “I feel that at the climax of our cheering, we cross a boundary and unwittingly begin applauding some other reality, a performer we know is there but who cannot be seen. We want to thank Beauty itself.”

He held his finger up to his lips and paused. “Let me be bold for a moment. Is it possible that during this evening’s performance, we unconsciously sensed Someone standing behind the beautiful, Someone who is its source, and we were moved to praise him as well?”

A hush fell over the room. The good doctor had moved from musicology to theology.

“I am a musicologist, but I am also an ordained priest in the Church of. England. For years I have tried to separate the different hats I wear, but I have been quite unsuccessful, so if you will indulge me, I would like to conclude my remarks this evening by suggesting that there is a distinct relationship between beauty and the heart’s search for God.”

Cudder leafed through his notes. He found the page he was looking for.

“In Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak describes one of his main characters like this: ‘Lara was not religious. She did not believe in ritual. But sometimes, to be able to bear life, she needed the accompaniment of an inner music. She could not always compose such a music for herself. That music was God’s word of life, and it was to weep over it that she went to church.’ ‘What was it about music that awakened the spiritual in Pasternak’s Lana? It was this: The object of all great art is beauty; and it makes us nostalgic for God. “Whether we consider ourselves people of faith or not, art arouses in us what Pope John Paul called a ‘universal desire for redemption.’”

Cudder sat on a three-legged stool. “All of us are meaning-seekers. We approach every painting, novel, film, symphony, or ballet unconsciously hoping that it will move us one step further on the journey, toward answering the question, ‘Why am I here?’ People living in the postmodern world, however, are faced with an excruciating dilemma. Their hearts long to find ultimate meaning, while at the same time their critical minds do not believe it exists. We are homesick, but have no home. So we turn to the arts and aesthetics to satisfy our thirst for the Absolute. But if we want to find our true meaning in life, our search cannot end there. Art or beauty is not the destination; it is a signpost pointing towards our desired destination.”

Cudder, picked up a page from his notes. “C. S. Lewis puts it so elegantly in The Weight of Glory: “The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through was a longing. . . . For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

Cudder wisely paused to allow Lewis’s words to rest on us. “My hope is that through our future encounters with music and the arts, we will discover this ‘heavenly country’ we have not yet visited but long to find. Thank you for your very kind attention this evening.”

People remained glued to their seats. Cudder’s remarks had been spoken with such humility and respect that everyone was charmed. After a few moments, the spell’s effect .passed, and people gathered their belongings, and began leaving.

Carla stood up. “Let’s say hello,” she said.

Cudder was surrounded by a group of admirers peppering him with questions. Carla and I stood behind them, patiently waiting our turn. Every so often, Cudder would peer over at us curiously, then continue fielding questions. A heavyset woman in red evening wear, dripping pearls and diamonds, asked in a loud, affected voice, “Professor Cudder, what is the true vocation .of the artist?” Her question would have been a good one if she hadn’t sounded so enamored with herself.

“Perhaps you should ask our friend here,” Cudder said, nodding at Carla.

The group turned to look at us.

“If I’m not mistaken, this is Carla Mellini,” Cudder said, “one of Europe’s most important up-and-coming cellists.”

Carla smiled and said, “Thank you, I’m honored.”

I looked at Carla out of the corner of my eye. I felt like we needed to be reintroduced.

“Any thoughts, Miss Mellini?” Cudder asked.

Carla took a lengthy pause before answering. “My teacher once told me that artists help people to see or hear beyond the immediate to the eternal. Most people look only at surfaces. A great poem, story, song, or sculpture reveals the hidden meaning of things.”

Cudder looked impressed. “But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear,” he added, quoting Jesus.

Everyone in the circle nodded appreciatively. Carla’s answer rang true.

“I am sorry to say that it is time for us to leave,” Cudder announced; “It has been a wonderful evening, but it is getting late and the custodial staff needs to close up. Thank you so much for coming.”

As the small band of devotees began filing out, Cudder came to us. “I hope I did not put you on the spot,” he said.

“Not at all. And please call me Carla. This is my friend, Chase Falson.”

Cudder shook my hand. “Very glad to meet you,” he said to us. “My name’s Liam. The title Professor is reserved for my students’ use.” He turned to Carla. “I heard you perform Schumann’s Cello Concerto in London last year. It was very stirring.”

“It’s an amazing piece. I’m glad you enjoyed it,” Carla replied.

“Did you enjoy the performance this evening?” Liam asked. Carla paused. “The orchestra’s first cellist is a friend, and he’s a wonderful soloist. I wish the slow movement had been more romantic, but otherwise he played it flawlessly.”

Cudder began stuffing his notes into a well-worn leather portfolio. “Do you suppose the two of you would join me for a late dinner? I am absolutely famished.”

Carla looked at me. “I’m  game, I said.

“The Caffe Greco?” Liam suggested.

Carla hesitated. “It’s a little pricey,” she said. I think she was worried more about the minister’s budget than anything else.

“It’s my treat,” Liam replied.

*  *  *

Expensive restaurants in Rome are generally not as opulent as those in Manhattan. Italians care more about great food and creating an intimate atmosphere. The Greco is an exception. Renowned for having been the haunt of famous nineteenth-century writers and artists, it gives you the best of everything— elegant decor, magnificent cuisine, and small tables for easy conversation.

It was yet another feast of food, wine, and passionately expressed ideas. Liam was a true Renaissance man. He was charming, funny, and oblivious to his own brilliance; His rakish good looks and refined demeanor reminded me of a young Roger Moore. We could have listened to him all night.

“The church has a mottled history with artists. In some eras, they have been appreciated, and in others, vilified. There have been seasons when a stifling artistic Puritanism reigned, and others when the arts were celebrated. Some Christians are still ambivalent about art.” Liam leaned across the table and spoke as if he were telling us a ghost story around a campfire. “They might arouse the lower passions.”

Carla covered her mouth and laughed. Liam flagged down one of the waiters and pointed to our empty champagne bottle. The waiter nodded and ran to the cellar to get us another.

“I came to faith in a Baptist tradition that was suspicious of anything having to do with the imagination,” he continued. “They thought it was the source of all kinds of evil ideas and impulses. And, to some degree, that is true. The depraved imagination has the capacity to dream up all sorts of dreadful things, but we threw the baby out with the bathwater. We did not recognize that  the redeemed imagination was capable of producing works of beauty that revealed the Glory”

Carla winced. “My parents think the arts are trivial. They say you should go to church to get good teaching, not a sonata,” Carla said.

Cudder politely wiped his mouth. “That is ironic, really. First, the Bible is a great literary work of art filled with poetry, songs, stories, parables, history, apocalyptic drama, and wisdom literature. Second, the very people who pride themselves on being focused on the Word often come perilously close to practicing a form of Gnosticism that overvalues the spiritual and eschews the material. But the Word became flesh! The Incarnation proves that the divine can be communicated through the material—color, sound, texture, words printed on paper, the movement of the body.”

“Could you write this all down? I’d like to send it to my parents,” Carla said.

Liam patted her hand. “Give it time. Hopefully your parents will come around. In the meantime, never forget that your vocation is a sacred one.”

Carla’s face opened up; she looked more relaxed than I’d seen her.

She’d met two people in the same day who empathized with her plight.

I could tell that something important was happening for her.

Her expression became pensive. “So maybe I should go back to church?” she asked.

“Now would be the time,” he replied.

“Why now?” I asked.

“The church is realizing that there is an awareness of God sleeping in the basement of the postmodern imagination and they have to awaken it. The arts can do this. All beauty is subversive; it flies under the radar of people’s critical filters and points them to God. As a friend of mine says, ‘When the front door of the intellect is shut, the back door of the imagination is open.’ Our neglect of the power of beauty and the arts helps explain why so many people have lost interest in church. Our coming back to the arts will help renew that interest.”

Carla was spellbound. I tried to imagine what she was thinking. Liam was confirming something she’d probably known all along: Her parents were wrong; It was a moment of exoneration.

A lightbulb seemed to go off in Carla’s head. “It’s like speaking in tongues,” she said.

Liam’s fork froze halfway between his plate and his mouth. “I’m sorry?” he asked.

Carla sat up straight. “Art, music, dance, theatre, literature, film. They’re all a way of speaking in tongues!”

“Of course!” I said. “They’re spiritual languages that communicate truths about God that human language doesn’t have words to express. That’s why the church needs to rediscover them.”

“What a brilliant way to put it,” Cudder said.

“Wait till I tell my Pentecostal parents that I’ve taken to speaking in tongues. They’ve been waiting for years for that to happen.”

“Wait till they find out you’re doing it through your cello.” Liam said.

I lifted my glass. “To Beauty!” I said.

Liam and Carla replied. “To Beauty!”

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

One last quote from this chapter, in conclusion. In the story, Chase is writing his end-of-day journal and mentions an experience he had at a U2 concert:

A few years ago I went to a U2 concert at Madison Square Garden in New York City; just three months after 9/11 Most of us in the arena that night probably knew someone who’d died in the Twin Towers, we’d lost three people in our church alone I’ll never forget the end of the concert As the band played the song “Walk On,” the names of all those who had died were projected onto the arena walls and slowly scrolled up over us, and then up toward the ceiling At that moment the presence of God descended on that room in a way I will never forget. There we were, twenty-five thousand people standing, weeping, and singing with the band. It suddenly became a worship service; we were pushing against the darkness together. I walked out dazed, asking myself, “What on earth just happened? Of course, it was the music. For a brief moment, the veil between this world and the world to come had been made thin by melody and lyric. If only for a brief few minutes, we were all believers.

So, I am rediscovering the “why” of my love of music and art. It truly does speak to me of something–Someone–beyond myself, and opens my heart and mind in ways that genuinely cannot be accessed any other way. My response? Awe, worship and love.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

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2 thoughts on “Chasing Francis: Why I Love Music & Art

    • I’m glad to hear that. It rings true with my experience that Anglicans are way ahead of Evangelicals in seeking to follow Jesus in serving the poor and marginalised (in the way of Francis). Apart from a few Brian McLaren books, Chasing Francis would have to be one of the most powerful books I’ve read in that it spoke volumes to me in my experience in so many areas and at so many levels. I’d love to see a sequel! Thanks for your comment. Peace.

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