With what attentive courtesy he bent
Over his instrument
Not as a lordly conqueror who could
Command both wire and wood,
But as a man with a loved woman might,
Inquiring with delight
What slight essential things she had to say
Before they started, he and she, to play.
Frances Cornford, “The guitartist tunes up.”
Here we have some images reflecting an artist at work. Or to be exact, involved in the preparations for work. Happily for Rolf Listlevand, seen above tuning his lute, work is play.
What I notice above all things is his attitude. He bends his ear to the body of the instrument, listening for things that very few people might be aware of. He listens for that moment when 2 frequencies become one, vibrate in perfect unison.
This act is almost impossible when there is any distracting noise. It requires a space and a time completely given over to the task, to the relationship between the artist and his instrument.
These days, given the high levels of energy implicit in much publicly consumed music, we have given this ritual over to technology. We use digital tuners which tell us visually whether a string is in tune or not. I refer to many types of music, but not the classical kind – here the ritual of tuning up retains its currency. Think the Western orchestra, or the Indian Classical ensemble.
So what is so arresting about this mans attitude? For one, it demonstrates commitment, representing years of practice and discipline. It demonstrates respect, respect for the music about to be rendered, the instrument, the exchange. Above all, and incorporating these two aspects, it is an act of intimacy.
The comparison with an intimate relationship between 2 people as expressed in Cornford’s poem, and the element of play involved in that relationship, is very powerful. It brings the respect shown to a thing or an abstract idea, into the realm of the personal.
It may be a truism but it remains worth saying, that one of the most sacred experiences we can have is an intimate relationship with a lover. What underpins the power of sex? Here are two answers to this question:
Firstly, it ensures the survival of the species, it leads to procreation. And second, the sexual urge draws to our attention a yearning for intimacy. And the ultimate intimacy is divine intimacy with the Creator.
I would go as far as to say that the ultimate goal and prize of all spirituality is not escape from damnation, not even the achieving of perfection, but it is defined relationally, in terms of intimacy. And all worship needs to have this as its goal.
Intimacy is a frightening proposition. Fairly scary for women, and terrifying for men, if I may allude to common stereotypes. “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God”, says the book of Hebrews.
Is this because the living God is a vengeful, malicious megalomaniac? I suggest that the answer lies in the fact of Holiness. G-d (at least the God of the Bible) is by definition holy, and that which is less than holy is simply unable to survive in that reality, like straw in the presence of fire.
But we need to be clear, holiness is not achieved by good works or self-sanctification, it is the gift of G-d in Christ, experienced through faith… this is the heart of the Christian gospel.
I hope that the relation ship between holiness and intimacy is emerging. Although the Holy G-d can not countenance sin, we are asked to present ourselves, present our whole heart. This means that we bring every part, the light and the dark, all our blemishes, doubts and failings.
Intimacy may be about holiness, but it is not about perfection. If I am 90% light and 10% darkness, and I present my light, happy-shiny 90% in worship, am I better than he who is 60% light and 40% darkness but presents 100% in worship?
True intimacy in worship involves the whole heart, including what is fallen. In fact it is these very blemishes which are ironically becoming to G-d, and it is an act, perhaps the greatest act, of courage and of faith, for anyone to allow another into the darkness of their secrets.
Religion encourages us to look and act the part of a holy person; but G-d asks for all of us including the our down and dirty secrets. If we were to say that it takes two to be intimate, we will have made some progress. But I believe the journey far goes beyond this.
Intimacy should become an expression not just of an individual and their God, or of two individuals, but need to become an expression of community as well. It needs to become a quality of life in a group of people.
Worship should enable this process. And furthermore, as paradoxical as it may sound, we need to become intimate with the cosmos itself. By understanding that the whole created order is not something separate from our relationships with people, our worship will reference the world, the whole of creation.
Righteousness is not a moral achievement, it an awareness. It means to be in right relationship with all that is. If we are becoming friends with G-d how can we not care for the ongoing work of G-d, the ongoing act of creation. This involves restoration of damage, be it relational, ecological, psychological or in any other domain, but more so the ongoing act of creation, in all its forms.
If we strive then for a worship of righteousness, of rightness, in closeness with life, this sense of harmony will begin to emerge. And then we can with our maestro, perhaps begin, “Inquiring with delight what slight essential things she had to say” …