George Elliot on the Sacraments: What A Way with Words!

I just came across this passage in George Elliot’s first novel Adam Bede written in the year 1859.   In case you’ve forgotten, George Elliot was a pen name for Mary Anne Evans (the pseudonym was to insure that people would take her novels seriously).

Elliott has just described carpenter Seth Bede’s proposal of marriage to Dinah, the pretty young Methodist preacher of the story, but he’s out of luck.  Dinah gently tells Seth her religious duties have to come first—he’s a good man, but she will never marry. Seth is heartbroken, and Elliot, in a beautiful ode to love, lets her sympathy for the poor young man’s unrequited adoration tumble out onto the page, writing that this sort of profound, pure love of a man for a woman is “hardly distinguishable from religious feeling.”   In fact, she writes, all of our deepest feelings of love share this religious quality,

“…whether of woman or child, or art of music.  Our caresses, our tender words, our still rapture under the influence of autumn sunsets, or pillared vistas or calm majestic statues, or Beethoven symphonies, all bring with them the consciousness that they are mere waves and ripples in an unfathomable ocean of love and beauty; our emotion in its keenest moment passes from expression into silence, our love at its highest flood rushes beyond its object, and loses itself in the sense of divine mystery.”

That’s it exactly: the divine mystery of the universal sacraments, found in “our emotion in its keenest moment”—the birth of a child, the sexual attraction of our best beloved, the power of the arts, music, and nature transform us from mere primates into something else, something that brings us into the realm of the divine.


The Fantastic Power of Music: A Note from 1667

When the diarist Samuel Pepys went out to the theatre one night in the late 17th century, something truly amazing happened.   The play was Massinger and Dekker’s The Virgin Martyr, and at one point an angel appears in a kind of Christian deus ex machina. The recorders, a relatively new instrument at that time in England, began playing as the angel descended and Pepys was completely blown away.  In one of the most exquisite passages of his diary he writes:

“But that which did please me beyond any thing in the whole world was the wind-musique when the angel comes down, which is so sweet that it ravished me, and indeed, in a word, did wrap up my soul so that it made me really sick, just as I have formerly been when in love with my wife; that neither then, nor all the evening going home, and at home, I was able to think of any thing, but remained all night transported, so as I could not believe that ever any musick hath that real command over the soul of a man as this did upon me.”

I’m sure this has happened to you.   You hear music so thrilling, so soul-piercing that you actually feel sick, like life is hardly worth living anymore because a different world has been revealed, a divine world far from the everyday concerns of this one.   It’s a siren song that makes your heart yearn for something you can’t even describe, and it stays with you for days.

That’s the Sacrament of the Arts.

This “transportation” that “commands your soul” can also come from a play, from a book, from a painting, a statute, or a song. And yes, Pepys gets it exactly right– it’s like being in love for the first time, when that glorious feeling seizes you, grips you, binds you to that other human being who has shown through the most secret acts of intimacy, that you are loved in return.  That’s a sacrament too.

The Virgin Martyr is rarely played anymore, and I’m not sure that particular bit of wind-music has been preserved, but what Pepys is describing has not been lost– it’s there for all of us to experience, not just when we fall in love, but also when we find that ineffable connection to the arts that ravishes us to our very souls.

The Perfect Song for the Trump Administration: Ship of Fools (Narrenschiff)

These days anyone in Germany who is a fan of Reinhard Mey, one of their great performers, must be thinking of his 1997 song “Narrenschiff” (Ship of Fools) as they gaze across the Atlantic at what was once the United States of America. Mey is one of those rarities: a poet who can also write his own music, sing his own songs, and powerfully deliver either a personal or political message.   What Georges Brassens did for France, Mey is doing for Germany.

I’m not sure what was going on politically in Germany in 1997 to get Mey so steamed up, but this song really packs a punch today. It’s about a ship full of idiotic passengers more interested in partying and money than in getting somewhere safely. They ignore the high seas outside and are focused only on the high life on board.  The crew is even worse. The chorus goes like this (it’s better in rhyming couplets of course):

The helmsman is a liar, the captain is drunk

And the engineer has sunk into a dull stupor

The crew, pure lying scoundrels,

The radioman too cowardly to send an SOS,

The Klabautermann is steering the Ship of Fools:

Full speed ahead and set course for the reef!

Now, this Klabautermann (Hobgoblin) is an interesting guy in German folklore. He’s a kind of invisible water spirit of the Baltic who can be quite amusing at times.   He sometimes helps sailors in distress, but if you ever actually see him, the legends say, your vessel is doomed.

The ship is full of pimps, money launderers, and slot-machine barons (casino-builders!) on their way to a “treasure island”,

…..where even the president

Has lost his shame and doesn’t hesitate

To adorn his entourage with the tax dodger.

So much of this song applies to the Trump administration and Donald Trump in particular, it’s really uncanny:

And smug old men strut around brashly

On the upper deck with ladies who are always much too young

Who warm their flabby limbs and chew their food for them

Mey wrote this song as a warning.   All of us have the capacity to blind ourselves to what’s going on around us to an incredible degree.   He could have been writing about global warming, or speculation on Wall Street, or our culture in general with its overemphasis on buying stuff and good times.  Too many of us are ignoring the signs:

The lookout calls from the highest mast: Endtime in sight!

But it’s like they’re turned to stone and they don’t hear him

They follow like lemmings in hordes, their wills gone,

It’s as if everyone had lost their reason

Sworn themselves to destruction and decay

And a will-o’-the-wisp has become their guiding light.



Two Views of Death.

I have a friend who plays the harp for hospice patients. One of the facilities on her circuit is an Alzheimer’s unit. She brings her harp to the bedside where these lost souls lie confused, physically depleted, dying of cancer or heart disease.   Their race is run but they often cannot grasp what is happening to them and often no longer recognize their families.

This afternoon she entered a room where Barbara lay in bed with the TV blaring at full volume. Some well-meaning caregiver or visitor probably thought it would distract her.   She lay there with her mouth open–tense, moaning with every breath. Extreme suffering was etched on her features and she gripped the sideboards until her knuckles were white. She wasn’t able to talk. The TV blithely announced: “Warning: The following program contains scenes of surgeons performing operations that may be upsetting to some of our viewers.” My friend immediately flicked it off and began playing a quiet melody.   Within the first measure, Barbara had released her grip on the sideboards. By the end of the first song, she had stopped moaning. After half an hour Barbara had relaxed into a steady, calm breathing. Her face was peaceful, her mind at ease.

The Sacrament of Death is a time when caregivers and the dying come together in a spiritual union that can transcend the everyday world we normally inhabit. It’s a person-to-person connection.   Music can be transcendent too: the Sacrament of the Arts, a balm to soothe the soul in time of trouble. TVs are intruders, or worse, tormenters.

The second example has been in the news all week : seven men and women dead in their own church, victims of someone they didn’t know, someone filled with hate, someone who was fed a steady diet of rage and ignorance with the help of that technological wonder and curse, the internet.

This is the Dark Side of death, what happens when we fail to teach our children that all life is precious, and death a sacred moment, a spiritual opportunity.   Failing to acknowledge the sanctity of death leaves the door open to its worship, to the kinds of death cults that are destroying lives all around the world and have caused this tragedy in Charleston.  This is a profound sacrilege.   Call it a sacrilege against God if you like, or against humanity: it’s the same in the end.