“In the midst of life, we are in death”
“Life is a creeping tragedy.That’s why we must be cheerful.”
“Our glory lies where we cease to exist.”
Sir John Tavener’s final broadcast on the BBC’s Today programme brought home with force the truths of faith.
“In the midst of life, we are in death” it says in the funeral service. In modern conditions, we are often made to feel that this is not true. The great event with which every life must end is concealed by our culture. Up go the curtains round the hospital bed and we all talk about something else.
So I listened with unusual interest to Start the Week (Radio 4) on Monday. In January, the programme’s presenter, Andrew Marr, though only in his early fifties, suffered a stroke. He has recently returned to broadcasting. His post-stroke speech has the vocal equivalent of a very slight limp. On Monday, this made what he had to say the more affecting.
Marr told his audience that he is not religious but that, as he has convalesced, he has found himself reading religious poetry and listening to religious music. He has encountered “the possibility of sudden death”, and it has changed him. He reads the 17th-century poems of George Herbert and listens to the cantatas of JS Bach. Why might this be, he wanted to know. Why, in a culture which seems less and less interested in the formal teachings of religion, do many people feel that religious poetry and religious music matter more than ever?
Sir John explained that he had recently had a near-death experience. Since he had been ill, he had been looking back on his life a lot. Although he had moved from the Presbyterianism of his childhood, through Roman Catholicism, to a rather unorthodox version of eastern Orthodoxy, he remembered fondly a Protestant pastor of his youth. “Life is a creeping tragedy,” the minister used to say. “That’s why we must be cheerful.”
At first, Sir John’s illness had “shut everything down. God seemed to have vanished”; but then, as he recovered strength, his belief in God and his capacity to compose music – which, he said, had always gone together – returned. Now his music had become “more essential; more terse”.
The next day, Sir John Tavener died. He had Started the Week, but he didn’t finish it. In the midst of life, we were in death.
I listened to the programme again on iPlayer. Now it was charged with greater meaning by the circumstances. Its themes, sometimes apparently disparate, seemed to resolve themselves, as in music. Tavener complained that there was “a notable lack of joy in modern art”. He had just set three of Herbert’s poems to music (they will be performed for the first time next year). He quoted Dante: “All my thoughts speak of love.”
John Drury read out one of Herbert’s most famous poems, Love (III). It takes the form of a dialogue between the unworthy soul and Love (who is God, though not so named). The soul is inclined to refuse Love’s invitation to sit at his table, but Love, the perfect host, persuades him. In the dialogue, said Dr Drury, “Love has fewer words, but they are sprightly. In the end, it is Love that matters.” On Tuesday, the end came for John Tavener.
Being no musician, or even a serious appreciator of music, I cannot judge Tavener’s work, beyond saying how I have always found it – in the literal sense of the word – entrancing. One gets caught up in it. To use a phrase of St John of the Cross, one “dies to oneself”. The concept of dying to oneself makes actual, physical death less terrible.
With his long hair and his almost hippy appearance, his incongruous love of fast, expensive cars and his weakness for the pow-wow drum or a Tibetan temple bowl, Sir John sometimes resembled what, as schoolboys, we called a “pseud”. Like Sir Laurens van der Post (another favourite of the Prince of Wales) or the travel writer Bruce Chatwin, he appeared to tread a fine line between mage and poseur. But if you follow his career, you can see the consistency of a quest which was both spiritual and musical. In his creativity, he may have been restlessly egotistical, yet his beliefs turned egotism into almost its opposite. As he put it, referring to the requiem mass: “Our glory lies where we cease to exist.”
George Herbert, though high-born and ambitious, eventually chose the simple life of a parish priest. He wrote his poems, but never attempted to publish them in life. As he was dying, he asked them to be given to a trusted friend, saying that they were “a picture of the many spiritual conflicts which have passed between God and my soul, before I could subject mine to the will of Jesus my Master”. He asked him to read the book and “if it may turn to the advantage of any poor dejected soul, let it be made public”; if not, he should burn it.
Luckily, the friend published, to the advantage of thousands of poor dejected souls ever since, up to and including Andrew Marr. Herbert’s glory lies where he ceased to exist.
For Herbert, that dejection he referred to was important. It was a horrible thing, but also a grace. In one of his most famous and beautiful poems, The Flower, Herbert compares his formerly depressed self to the plant that seems to die, but doesn’t: “And now in age I bud again,/After so many deaths I live and write;/I once more smell the dew and rain,/And relish versing: /Oh my only light,/ It cannot be/That I am he/On whom thy tempests fell all night.”
On Start the Week, Jeanette Winterson quoted Seamus Heaney: “Poetry should be strong enough to help.” “Strong” wouldn’t be the first adjective one would associate with George Herbert’s refined and gentle spirit, but it turns out to be the right one. His poetry helps.
I should have liked to ask Andrew Marr for his own answers to his own questions. What is it that he, an unreligious person, finds valuable in Herbert, the most truly religious of all English religious poets, or in a religious composer like Sir John Tavener?
On air, Marr asked if it were true, as some have said, that only a good Christian could read Herbert correctly. The panel were indignant at the idea, no doubt rightly so, since Herbert wrote for any human being who might need it. But the broader question stands: if people do not believe what religion says, why do they turn to its utterances when sick or dying or in fear?
The obvious, cynical, but not completely wrong answer is “Any port in a storm”. But I would argue that something else is going on, too. The chief message of 21st-century Western culture is one of self-empowerment. With technology, money, know-how, rights, medicine, problems can be solved: “You can do it!” Often this is true. But an encounter with really serious things – and nothing is more serious than death – tells you that ultimately you cannot. When you realise this, the paradoxes that are central to the great religions (especially to Christianity, which is the most paradoxical) come home with unique force. When I am weak, then am I strong; you must die to live.
In our culture, millions of people only think about these things too late, if at all. So the people who think about them all the time are helpful – and brave. Which is good reason to give thanks for the life and work of Sir John Tavener.