Last night, in a return to pre-COVID tradition, we celebrated Tenebrae in the Abbey Church. With the latest wave of infections sweeping the staff and students, I’ll admit I had my doubts I’d be able to go up and sing as I used to with a house to run, but my housemaster very kindly stepped in, allowing me to bolster the tenor line. It’s hard to overstate the importance of making music in my faith: singing is an act of worship. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t go to Mass when the churches opened last year, while the ban on singing was still in place – how could I practice my faith without lips to speak? I remember saying as much to one of the school’s youth chaplains once, who remarked that I ought to rethink my approach to faith. Was he right? I don’t think so. I think everyone’s path to God is individual. Mine just happens to be through music, which, all things considered, is hardly surprising.
I spent a great deal of my childhood in and out of churches. My mother played the organ for the village church when I was very young, and I remember sitting (probably not so quietly) next to the pedals, listening to the growling hum of the organ long after the last notes faded into the stone walls. Later, during my short spell at a prep school, I spent two nights a week up in the organ loft of Canterbury Cathedral while my father sang for the cathedral choir. What was undoubtedly an incredible privilege became routine – that is, until a Victorian-minded parishioner who happened to look up one week decided that children were better “seen and not heard” and my brother and I were unceremoniously ousted, forced to sit in the quire thereafter.
Perhaps that was God’s will, because twenty years later, I still jump at the chance to stand in just such a stall and tangle with some sacred music. There’s really nothing quite like it.
I have a somewhat unorthodox relationship with God. If it were a Facebook status, I might just go for “It’s complicated”. Somewhere deep within, my spiritual compass spins toward Israel. Maybe it’s the stories my mother brought me up with or the belief we both share that our ancestors were among the many thousands of Spain’s Jews who converted to hide from the Inquisition, many hundreds of years ago. It would go some way towards explaining the ferocious proclivity for the arts borne across the generations by my ancestors, at a time when intellectualism was unwise and even dangerous. Millán-Astray’s battle cry of “muera la inteligencia” in 1936 – around about the time my grandfather was born – hardly seems out of place for a country where, for hundreds of years, it was better to hacer mala letra than open your mouth and betray your wits. Our own Michael Gove gave us an uncomfortable reminder of this dark past when he claimed the British had “had enough of experts” in the lead-up to Brexit.
I can hold my head up high every day as a teacher knowing that I am the next in a long line of teachers, all of whom dabbled in music and poetry and art. Were they really Jews, though? I’d like to think so – I really would – but I have no proof of that. I have barely enough solid proof of my connection to my grandfather, never mind a connection to a Hebrew ancestry that may or may not have ever existed. The silver Star of David I sometimes wear beneath my suit is no heirloom, but rather a keepsake from a Jewish silversmith in Cordoba; a reminder of the terrible fate suffered by the Chosen People in a land far from home that was once their paradise. Will I ever know for sure? I doubt it. But some things you see with your eyes, others with your heart. This is one of those things the heart sees. Something you have always known or believed with little to no provocation. I believe because I cannot be sure. It’s the weakest of arguments, the merest of threads. But about such threads, Faiths are often weaved into being.
So why am I a Catholic? With such silent conviction, how can I stand there in the darkness, singing Christian verses and watching the candles going out to mark the extinguishing of Jesus’ light and life from the world, a little under two thousand years ago?
I am a Catholic because I would make the same journey as my family. Whether or not my ancestors found their way to the Christian God through awe or terror, I would take that road that they took. And there is something fundamentally grounding about faith. Standing as one with my students and singing songs that have been sung for hundreds of years… you feel a power, there, echoing down the generations. It’s all the more powerful when you see the date at the top of the copy reaching back to the middle ages. One imagines one’s voice reaching up to the heavens and mingling with the voices of those who came before you on its journey across the stars. Perhaps that’s what the choir of Heaven is: the echo of thousands of years of collective prayer through song. I’d like that.
I might also point out that the Catholic church represents an important bastion against the foe, since modern Christian music is, to my ears, quite possibly the wettest, most uninspiring drivel ever produced. It clearly works wonders for some, but it does nothing for me. Give me plainchant any day. A colleague once joked that one of his greatest fears was that he should reach the pearly gates only to find that Mozart and his kin are nowhere to be found, and Hillsong reigns triumphant. It’s a joke (and a nightmare) I share. But that’s a story for another time.
I am also a Catholic because Faith is a journey of forgiveness. Noli mortem peccatoris. Those were the words of power that spoke to me last night, as the last of the candles were snuffed out. I do not want the death of the wicked. I bear no ill will against those shadows who persecuted my people, because there is too much hate in the world already. I wept on the shores of the Dead Sea years ago at the sight of the sun going down over the Holy Land, knowing I was not yet ready to see it with my own eyes. Jerusalem evades me still: the last time I tried to make that journey, a little hiccup called Covid-19 came thundering in.
Finally, I am a Catholic because of what it stands for. Katholikos. Universal. It chimes with me in much the same way that the Arabic expression ahl al-Kitaab – people of the book – called out to me in my Arabic studies, many years ago. The world is immense and no two people are the same, and I think it’s as foolish to expect everyone to share the same faith as it is to expect to find two identical grains of sand on a beach: the closer you look, the more you’ll find yourself doubting. But I have built my faith upon doubt rather than surety, because that, to me, is what faith is all about. Believing in the light when all the world is darkness because your heart tells you to do so. Fate may be the master builder of the temples of our lives, but hope is the cement that holds the stones together. I believe in that light and in that hope. And in my heart I know I would go on hoping, though every light in the world were extinguished as they were last night, one by one.
In three days’ time I set out for Italy on my first solo adventure in a long time. Venice will inspire, no doubt, but it’s Rome I’m especially excited to see. I hope I can catch some music there during my stay. I could use some of that ancient magic after what has been quite a long term. BB x