Category Archives: Arts

An Intense Life


Mariani, Paul. Gerard Manley Hopkins: a Life. 

New York City: Viking Adult, 2008

Reviewed by Ted Witham


The 13th century Franciscan philosopher Duns Scotus was one of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ heroes. Duns Scotus invented the idea of haecceitas. This ugly Latin word is usually translated by the equally ugly ”isness “, but would be better rendered as “uniqueness.” Haecceitas refers to the quality that makes a thing itself and not anything else. In other words, Scotus was encouraging his readers to gaze at things until they disclosed their unique quality. Gazing, according to Sister Ilia Delio among others, is a characteristic aspect of Franciscan praying. Duns Scotus’ philosophy places him firmly in this Franciscan tradition.

Hopkins pays homage to Duns Scotus in his poem ”Duns Scotus’s Oxford.”   This sonnet deplores the way Oxford has developed and grown since the 1200s.

”… graceless growth, thou hast confounded
Rural rural keeping – folk, flocks, and flowers.”

Hopkins has evidently informed this judgement by gazing  at the buildings and trees he so loves until he sees what makes Oxford unique.

”Towery city and branchy between towers;
Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmed, lark-charmed, rook-racked, river­ rounded.”

Hopkins was expert at gazing. Ilia Delio tells the story of Hopkins gazing at a tree in Ireland for three days until it disclosed its haecceitas. Hopkins felt at home in the natural world of Ireland and Wales. It is this world, gazed at and wondered about, that is “charged with the glory of God.”

Paul Mariani’s biography reveals that Hopkins’ expertise was profound but narrow. His powerful intellect was trained at Oxford in the classics, and he remained absorbed in Latin and Greek even after the Jesuits had thoroughly trained him in theology.

The Jesuits seemed not to know what to do with this strange, intense young man, so they eventually sent him to Ireland on the pretext that he would help other Jesuits establish a Catholic University in Dublin. Even though he was on the Catholic side, Ireland was not a congenial place for an English patriot, especially one who found it difficult to make friends. In practice, his lonely years in Ireland were an almost endless task marking the Latin and Greek exams of all the children matriculating in Ireland.

Depressed and physically ill, he battled on until his death in 1888 aged only 44. He cried out, presumably in the mid-1880s:

“My own heart let me more have pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter, kind,
Charitable; not live in this tormented mind.
With this tormented mind, tormenting yet.”

Only hours before his death, Father Wheeler heard Hopkins whispering over and over again, “I am so happy. I am so happy.” Mariani’s simple telling of this story leaves us with the impression that Hopkins is finally happy because he knows he will soon be passing from this unhappy life to his glorious reward.

Mariani’s Life is richly textured. The biographer gathers a mass of detail and tells the story of Hopkins’ life chronologically. His sources are so detailed that he often reports verbatim conversations that Hopkins had on a given day, and records what he was thinking and confiding to his journal.


Hopkins’ story is simple. From the English upper-middle class, Hopkins would have been expected to remain lifelong Anglican were it not for his awkward conversion to Rome. This choice, made at Oxford, determined his direction.

It was a time when young Oxford men agonised over ‘going over’: John Henry Newman, another of his heroes, had done it a generation earlier, and several of Hopkins’ circle either converted or seriously contemplated it. It was a decision to be made, as Hopkins did, with lengthy deliberation and careful disclosure to family and friends. Some never forgave or understood his decision.

His lifelong friendship with the poet Robert Bridges only just lasted this decision time.

Hopkins did well enough at his theological studies and loved the setting of the Jesuit Novitiate at Roehampton, Wales. His daily walks inspired his poetry; he learned Welsh to better minister to Welsh-speakers; and he regaled his fellows with erudite jokes at end of term dinners. He was happy – or at least as happy as he would ever be.

His engagement with the craft of poetry started to flower at Roehampton. Paul Mariani shows how original Hopkins was both in developing the idea of ‘sprung rhythm’ and in paying attention to ‘inscape’. These are both complex ideas, and Mariani helped me understand them better.

Hopkins’ concept of ‘inscape’ is the poetical descendent of Duns Scotus’ haecceitas. Where landscape is exterior, ‘inscape’ is interior. It describes the qualities revealed when you gaze on something in nature or on the action of a person. Poetry is partly about capturing inscape, as a painter, in depicting trees and sky, communicates the qualities of the landscape.

Hopkins deeply understood the contribution Shakespeare had made to poetry and to the English language by adapting iambic pentameter to English poetry in both drama and poems. Hopkins believed that English is not a syllabic language and questioned whether iambs and dactyls and other syllabic patterns were best for English. So he experimented with a line of five beats – still a pentameter – that was independent of the number of syllables: this was sprung rhythm.

Mariani explores at some depth the influence of Duns Scotus on Hopkins. In a book of over 400 pages, I was a little disappointed not to find more about another influence: Ignatius of Loyola. I felt Paul Mariani played down the Jesuits’ influence of Hopkins. However, there is no way that a sensitive man like Hopkins could have completed the 40-day Exercises without being deeply permeated by Ignatian spirituality. Mariani may have thought that David Downes in his study on the Ignatian spirit and Hopkins had sufficiently covered the notion of Hopkins the priest-poet.

While still in simple vows, the Jesuits put Hopkins into a classroom. He taught zealously, and students remembered him as gentle and trustworthy.

They would surely remember his illustration of how Achilles hooked Hector’s bloodied corpse behind his chariot and dragged it beneath the walls of Troy. ”Hopkins lay on his back and had a student drag him around the floor.” (p. 333) His zany pedagogy sometimes connected with his students, but often, his students simply found him over-scrupulous and strange. Teaching was not his vocation.

Meanwhile, Hopkins struggled on with his craft: sprung rhythm and internal rhymes pressed into service to express his insight into the true nature of the world around him. Not that Hopkins was always convinced that being a poet was the heart of his vocation. He stopped writing for some years, disappointed that he was not being published, and unsure of what his superiors really thought of his poetry.

And so to Ireland, and to the lonely room with the desk piled high with papers to mark, and the daily walk and his poetry his only escape.

We might be tempted to conclude that he had lived the life of the archetypical Romantic poet: the genius whose suffering was transmuted into Art. This was the ideal that Byron, Keats, Coleridge and others proposed. Yet I doubt Hopkins would want to be placed with the Romantics. Every day, he might say, he had the privilege of seeing the ‘dearest freshness deep down things’, and though to the observer, his life may seem to carry the shape of the Crucified Lord, Hopkins knew every day the presence of the Risen Lord:

‘EnoughI the Resurrection,//A heart’s clarion!
Away grief’s gasping, joyless days, dejection.’

This disciple was not waiting for the after-life to taste the joys of life in the Risen One. He was enchanted by it now.

Bridges and GMH 1863For this lover of Hopkins’ poetry, this life was not only fascinating to read, but it was also good to hold such a beautiful book. The narrative is sustained with clarity over 435 pages, and a handful of illustrations add much it. I found myself often looking back to the photos of Bridges and Hopkins taken in 1863, and used as a pictorial epigraph for Part 1, and then flicking forward to the photos taken in 1888 months before Hopkins’ death in Dublin. These show  Bridges as a mature man with a vital eye looking forward to the future. Hopkins, by contrast, looks exhausted and grim, with his hair receding and his head tilted slightly backwards as though he already looking up in anticipation.

Mariani has captured for me the haecceitas of Father Gerard Manley Hopkins, priest and poet. Mariani’s inscape is an insight into his intense, short life.bridges-and-gmh-1888.png







La Fantôme Grise

A short piece of fiction to mark ANZAC Day:

The Grey Girl from Kojonup


They called her “La Fantôme grise”. One of the first acts of the new French government in 1946 was to award her France’s highest honour, la Croix d’or, the golden cross.

Emily Louise Brown was born at Katanning in 1918 and grew up near Kojonup in Western Australia. She attended the one-teacher school at Brokerup. If you visit there today, you will see only a few acres fenced off and a plaque. The little school was Emily Brown’s window onto the wide world beyond her father’s farm.

Her reading developed early, and by age 10, she was enjoying Gulliver’s Travels, and A Tale of Two Cities. The worlds depicted in Oliver Twist drew her imagination. Not only did she want to see the vast, teeming cities of old Europe and the mother country, but she wanted to change the world. She knew that living on their tranquil farm, with plenty to eat, safety from violence and freedom to dream and choose was a privilege, and she wanted every child to enjoy the same abundance that she experienced.

In 1928, Mr Trevelyan, a Cornish veteran, arrived at Brokerup to teach in the one-teacher school. He boarded with the Browns and guided young Emily’s reading, telling her a heady mix of stories of Cornwall and King Arthur and Celtic mystics.  At her parents’ church, Father O’Reilly woke in her a sense of mystery, and introduced her to the concept of God’s care for the poor.

The only high schools were in Perth. Perth Modern awarded her a scholarship, and Emily excelled in her studies. Perth Modern was probably the only school in Perth in the 1930s that took seriously the teaching of languages, and Emily loved Monsieur Roland, the old eccentric Frenchman who taught her French and Latin. On the netball and tennis courts she showed a fierce determination.

Three years at The University of Western Australia followed. The University’s motto is ‘Seek Wisdom’ and its message seemed to be as engraved on Emily’s heart as it was on the stone near the Reflection Pond. Emily graduated with a degree in French and Modern History. Young women in 1936 could then become a monitor in a school for a year before returning to the Teachers’ College in Claremont to complete their training.

Emily, strong-minded as ever, had another plan. Her parents did their best to dissuade her from setting off for Europe on her own, but she got her way, as she usually did, and her parents supported her financially. After the war she learned how much they grieved when the steamer left Fremantle. On the wharf that day they had a premonition that Emily was going into a war-ready continent to her death.

Paris delighted her, but she wanted to see where the real poor people of France were, so she set off south to Marseille. She stayed with a welcoming Catholic family, the Germains, from where she devoted part of her time, like a missionary, to helping the poor.

Emily was only eighteen. The vibrant night-life in Marseille drew her to clubs and parties. Older men introduced her to the private dance clubs which only the very rich could afford. Her life became a contradiction: by day, devout Catholic volunteering in soup-kitchens; at night, the wild, out of control socialite. It couldn’t go on.

One night, in the Club de Danse de Marseille, Jean-Laurent Renoir asked the young Australian girl to dance. Renoir was 28 at the time, absolutely wealthy, but a steady and thoughtful man. He liked what he saw.

Emily fell in love with Jean-Laurent, just as she had fallen in love with the Marseille‘s poor. Emily and Jean-Laurent married in August 1938, just before the Germans turned their greedy tanks towards Paris.

Emily’s French by this time was excellent. She spoke with the twang of Marseille, called herself Emilie-Louise, but could easily switch to the deep tones of Paris and then to the rolled r’s of the Riviera. She was, in short, a linguistic chameleon.

Jean-Laurent’s house had always been a centre for parties. Emilie-Louise had a talent as a hostess, and all Marseille rhapsodised about the glittering soirées at the Villa Renoir and the sparking Mme Renoir at its heart.

Jean-Laurent and Emily both watched with horror the events in Europe in 1939 and 1940. The Renoir family had deep roots in the Midi, and Emily had come to love the French people, especially the poor she had met in her role as a Catholic volunteer. When Paris fell to the Germans in June 1940, this young couple were ready to resist however they could.

The Germans occupied only the northern part of France, and so in Marseille, they were in Free France. They seized opportunities for resistance knowing that they would be different from those trapped in Maréchal Pétain’s Nazi-controlled France.

The Renoirs’ war began with channelled large sums of money to the displaced and hungry in occupied France through Catholic Aid agencies.  Then, as intelligence about incipient Resistance groups in Paris arrived at the Villa Renoir, they began financing them.

A Tract Society in Marseille called La Société Catholique de la Vérité distributed devotional tracts through the south of France. Emilie contributed to these, especially those with cleverly disguised addresses of safe houses. What would Pope Leo XIII have thought of a footnote in a small devotional tract referring the reader to “Section 10, paragraphe 12, vers 42” of his encyclical on Unity, if he knew that the numbers combined to give 10-12-42, the phone number of Villa Renoir!

Inevitably, Emily’s role became more personal and more dangerous.

Escape routes like that through the Château de Chenconceaux across the Loire River began to deliver downed airmen to Marseille. Shortages meant that these aircrew would arrive in the south exhausted and famished.

Most of them were determined to return to England. The port at Marseille was blockaded, and the Germans controlled all the Atlantic coast of France. Their only escape route was over the Pyrenees into Spain and onto neutral Portugal. Their lack of condition meant that they would never make the journey. Emilie-Louise took them in and fed them.

This became more and more dangerous as German officers searched houses regularly. Emilie-Louise decided that the best way to hide them was in plain sight. She invited the Germans to lavish parties, encouraging them to drink the best wines and liqueurs. They obliged by dampening any suspicions they may have had of the taciturn waiters.

On one occasion, an RAF pilot dressed in the Renoir livery was serving drinks. A bellicose German was demanding more whisky. It was clear that the “waiter” didn’t understand the officer’s accented French, and the demands became more insistent. The attentive hostess noticed that the pilot’s hands were shaking with fear, so she pushed past, sending the tray flying, and apologising profusely in the ensuing embarrassment all round. She saved the pilot.

The Germans ferreted out the large sums of money coming to the Resistance. They began to suspect Jean-Laurent and began watching his movements. A series of betrayals brought tragedy to Emily’s door. In the local parish church, one of the priests had been helping channel some funds to Paris; another had begun collaborating with the Germans. To his shame, he was identifying to the SS Jewish families from the area. Jean-Laurent realised that there was a blockage in getting the money out of Marseille, so he chose to test the possibility of carrying the cash himself.

He and Emily said their emotional farewells at home. He caught the Paris train.  When the train arrived at the Gare de Lyon Jean-Laurent was found alone in his first-class compartment with his throat slit. The French police found a huge number of francs secreted in his overcoat and suit.

News got back quickly to Marseille to Emily. Her life in danger, she searched for a way out.

One of the RAF pilots was due to make the crossing to neutral Portugal across the Pyrenees. Emilie persuaded her resistance colleagues to let her take on the tough role of guide. Three months later, London was briefing her for a mission with the Special Operations Executive. Emilie’s perilous journeys into occupied Paris as a clandestine wireless operator are now well-documented, as is her escape from Paris after she seduced a suspicious German officer, and then shot him.

La Fantôme grise was not able to return to Paris until after the war, but for the remainder of 1944 and 1945, her voice on the wireless from London steadied many S.O.E. operatives and saved many lives.

Emily Louise Brown stands alongside Nancy Wake, “the little white mouse” as a great Australian war hero. She claimed that she only did what she had to, and followed the values she had learned on a farm near Kojonup in Western Australia. We call her bravery stupendous.


  • Ted Witham



Claude Beausoleil’s WINTER

Claude Beausoleil’s Winter

Translation by Ted Witham

First published in Azuria #5 (Autumn 2016) by Geelong Writers Inc.


on the white river a whistling complaint in words

is torn from the fallout of a winter’s night

the city is shaking

the city is creaking

and the city is shivering

on this white river pale cries of smoke rise

blotting out the buildings

from a sky in the grip of the north

to this sky you ask who speaks in this silence

for how many centuries

from what mythical place

with what energy

you who watch the wind

do you know her quests her headings and her deviations

her fantasies and her festivals do you recognise yourself there

beyond the snow driven like explosions in tornadoes

the soul of your cold


without melancholy when rubbed does it tremble

into the white lines of a new beginning

clamouring for a story

in which is pronounced naked the word winter

and the season carries it away in its mad spinning where lures

give birth to a book that pulverises the memories of the freeze

*****                            *****                                      *****

Claude Beausoleil (born in Quebec in 1948) is a French-Canadian poet and novelist writing mainly in French. He holds Masters and Doctoral degrees in literature and teaches literature. His poetry is influenced by the Beat poets, gothic themes and a strong sense of Quebec, its landscape and culture.  The author of Black Billie has won many prizes and honours; in 2013 he was a finalist in the Académie Française’s poetry prize.

*****                            *****                                      *****

L’HIVER de Claude Beausoleil

sur le fleuve blanc de mots siffle une complainte

arrachée aux séquelles d’une nuit hivernale

c’est la ville qui chancelle

qui claque

et qui frémit

sur ce fleuve blanc se hissent

des fumées en cris pâles détachant les immeubles

d’un ciel en proie au nord

à ce ciel tu demandes qui parle en ce silence

depuis combien de siècles

depuis quel lieu mythique

avec quelle énergie

toi qui regardes le vent

connais-tu ses quêtes ses lignes et ses errances

ses délires et ses fêtes t’y reconnais-tu

par-delà la poudrerie de tensions en tornades

l’âme de ta ville


sans mélancolie tremble-t-elle frottée

aux courbes blanches d’un recommencement

réclamant un récit

dans lequel se prononce nu le mot hiver

que la saison emporte dans ces vertiges où des leurres

naît un livre pulvérisant les mémoires du gel


Louis Dantin’s OPTIMISM

Louis Dantin’s Optimism

Translation – Ted Witham.
First Published in Azuria #5 (Autumn 2016), by the Geelong Writers Inc.

Everything suffering and vile the Ideal can lift
And shine refracted through Beauty’s prism:
The windflower’s aroma becomes the tomb’s petalled chrism
And all mud is gold in the sun’s dawning shift.

Things that are shredded shine in their splintering;
Corruption is a catalyst for nectar’s distillation.
In the murdered brain is the masterpiece’s creation
And in the night the heart’s flame is a torch glittering.

Bloody battles turn to smiles on the lips of History
And the blood as it’s spilt floods into rivers of glory;

Mudflats are transformed by Art’s chaste fingers;
Tears are rubies in the poems of their singers;

Death is beautiful in Mozart’s heavenly harmonies,
And even hell is divine in Dante’s crowning ecstasies.

*****                                    *****                             *****

Louis Dantin (alias Eugène Seers, 1865-1945) was a Québecois priest, poet, novelist and literary critic. He straddled Romantic and Symbolist styles.

Optimisme de Louis Dantin

Rien n’est souffrant ou vil qu’un idéal n’élève
Et qui n’ait son reflet dans le prisme du Beau :
L’anémone parfume et fleurit le tombeau
Et toute fange est d’or quand le soleil se lève.

Tout être déchiré rayonne en son lambeau ;
Toute corruption élabore une sève ;
Dans le cerveau meurtri le chef-d’œuvre s’achève
Et dans les nuits du cœur l’incendie est flambeau.

La bataille est riante aux lèvres de l’Histoire
Et le sang répandu coule en fleuve de gloire ;
Laïs se transfigure aux doigts chastes de l’Art ;

Les pleurs sont des rubis dans le vers qui les chante ;
La mort est belle aux sons des harpes de Mozart,
Et l’enfer est divin dans l’extase du Dante.


Make your Point High and Dry

High Point of English

I went to school with a character called A.P. O’Strophe who used to punctuate a lot of my work. With a name like O’Strophe, we kids thought he might be Irish or Russian, but our English teacher assured us his family originated from Greece but had been in England at least 500 years.

A.P. was the high point of our compositions. Disconcertingly, he did go all through one’s belongings. He tagged one’s books, one’s hair, one’s friends, one’s parent’s cars – and he was interested not only in people’s possessions, but also in things’ things, like one’s bike’s brakes, and birds’ nests, Mr Kenilworth’s Rover’s motor, and ARIA’s Hall of Fame!

A.P. appealed to the rebel in me. We used to escape formal English, and A.P. knew every short cut: there wasn’t a contraction he didn’t know how to compress. Only he couldn’t hide from the teacher who could see that he’d changed to informal register because he left the O’Strophe tag wherever he’d shortened a word.

The Guidance Officer couldn’t easily advise A.P. on a suitable career. A.P.’s father had been really busy in the old sailors’ navy, making short work of the bos’n, and hacking into the fo’c’s’le’s timbers.  The Royal Australian Navy however had discharged A.P.’s family in the middle of the 20th Century. They now write all ranks either in full, or with capital letters with no punctuation: CAPT, LEUT, PO, etc.

A.P. would be lost in the greengrocers! He would never understand why apple’s could not sell at $4 a kilogram. The best option the Guidance Officer came up with was for A.P. to go into midwifery or gynaecology where his proficiency with contractions might prove useful.

This skill with shortcuts made him good at sports like orienteering and geo-caching, where knowing where the GPS’s apostrophe should go saves hours of confusion. But for the same reason, A.P. was thrown out of the cross-country race, his ability at shortcuts seen as the cheat’s way.

These days, A.P. gets into arguments about whether he’s wanted to make plurals of non-standard words. Should he mind his Ps and Qs? Or should be he mind his P’s and Q’s? We were at school in the 1950s. No: we were at school in the 1950’s. I think he’ll lose that argument!

All the signs point to the fact that we’re coming to the end of A.P.’s life. Poor A.P. He’s beginning to be ignored and not just at the greengrocers. A.P. is nowhere to be seen in directional signs like DOCTORS SURGERY, and welcome signs telling the driver YOUR NEARLY THERE.

A.P., like a cancer, is also every place he shouldn’t be (SPEED CAMERA’S, SPA’S AND POOLS, PERFECTION HAS IT’S PRICE), indicating that sign-writers will soon give up in despair and just leave A.P. out everywhere.

I’m in a state of preparatory grief for A.P., who used to be such a high point of one’s writing, and is now dotty, old and showing early signs of dementia.


Remembering Dorothea Angus

Dorothea Angus 2_webPublished in Limelight, January-February 2016


In 1938, noted Australian composer Miriam Hyde was a student at Adelaide’s Elder Conservatorium. She had completed the University Diploma (AMUA) and was embarking on her Mus.Bac. degree. She made a pact with fellow-student Dorothea Angus to exchange new compositions. Dulcie Holland in Sydney joined the pact.

Dorothea Angus was soon reputed to have the largest collection of Australian music. She also became an accomplished sensitive accompanist and pianist. Her piano teacher was H. Brewster Jones, and in 1934, she shared the A.M.E.B.’s Licentiate prize with Lloyd Vick. After Brewster Jones’ death, the noted organist John Horner became her teacher, and after recitals in Adelaide and Sydney, Dorothea was feted as ‘Australia’s top organist’.

The ABC recognised her talent. She made over 250 broadcasts first in Adelaide, and then in Perth, after shifting to Perth in 1938 to establish music teaching at Perth College. She broadcast live mainly on ‘Australia Makes Music’. Often after a long day of teaching, she would ride the tram down Beaufort Street to the old ABC in the Stirling building in the Supreme Court gardens to perform on air, or technicians and announcers would come to Perth College for live broadcasts from the Chapel organ.

In these concerts, she frequently accompanied the contralto Phyllis Everett, and the pair were often joined by rising violinist Vaughan Hanly. Dorothea played the classic repertoire, Mozart, Bach and Beethoven. She also championed Australian music. Her former pupil Pam Hesling (née Mawby) describes how tattered and dog-eared her Australian sheet music was from vigorous practice and rough thrusting into her music case.

Little remains now of her vast collection of music. Pam Hesling has her letters and papers, but no music. I met Dorothea in 1975 and she gave me some of her organ music, which is now in the National Library in Canberra. Those 16 pieces are all that is left.

Dorothea Angus appointed in 1936 as ‘Assistant to the Precentor’ in Adelaide’s St Peter’s Cathedral. J.M. Dunn had been cathedral organist since 1891, and he died in 1936. The vacancy was given to Canon Horace Finnis, who was also Precentor and Bishop’s Vicar. It is not hard to imagine the talented Dorothea being called anonymously to the organ console or to lead choir practice while Finnis took the credit.

In Perth, Dorothea Angus is remembered now by a group of former Perth College music students who still meet annually to reminisce about the woman they call ‘Fungi’ or ‘Gus’. They are proud of the fashionable woman who encouraged their music and to take leadership in their music club. Pam Mawby gasps when she remembers turning the pages as Dorothea sight-read a Brahms sonata one morning for a performance that afternoon. Jean Bourgault du Coudray (née Macgregor) remembers Dorothea’s insistence on clarity of expression. They remember how their Principal, Sister Rosalie, would sit quietly in a corner of the Studio in the late afternoon during Dorothea’s personal practice time.

Dorothea continued to develop Perth College’s music program for 32 years. As the West Australian Symphony Orchestra found its feet in the 1950s, Dorothea began the custom of whisking the boarders off to symphony concerts. The author accompany the school to a performance of Sibelius’ Finlandia in 1975 and was astonished as they gave WASO a standing ovation, cheering and calling ‘Bravo’. They had been well briefed by Fungi! Some of them may even have known that ‘Finlandia’ was her favourite piece.

Dorothea too stretched her range and was a not infrequent concertist with WASO, playing, for example, Mozart’s A major piano concerto (K488) under Henry Krips.

But all the time, Miriam Hyde and Dulcie Holland were sending their LImelight articlecompositions to Dorothea and Dorothea was playing them on the ABC and in concerts around Western Australia. During these years, Dulcie Holland’s music grew in reputation from being regarded only as set pieces for A.M.E.B. exams to worthwhile compositions. Pam Mawby claims that other composers, including London- and Canada-based Arthur Benjamin, regularly contributed to Dorothea’s Australian music collection.

The names of Miriam Hyde and Dulcie Holland figure largely in Australian music of last century. By her indefatigable broadcasting Dorothea Angus was one of their key interpreters and champions.

Loving God through Music

My sermon for the Third Order Convocation

Sunday 15 September 2013 – The Stigmata

Loving God through music

God takes human art very seriously. This weekend has reminded us of God’s interest in art. Anne has introduced us to icons which lead many to worship and may help us worship God too. Asta and others reminded us of the importance of play in art.  Of course God has chosen as God’s principal means of communication with us a book full of parables, like that of the pearl we just heard, and poetry and insightful novels like Job and Ruth and Joseph and glorious liturgical praise-poems like those in Revelation.

The art form I know best is music. My Grandad was the first to tell me that you can tell how sincere a person’s faith is from the way he sings. I didn’t know then that he was quoting Thomas Hardy who was quoting John Wesley! It’s true that you can tell from a person’s voice something of their emotional state, and it’s true that singing leads many of us to worship.

We can take our lead from Jesus. We know that he sang. In the synagogues of his time – as today – the Scriptures are always sung. When Jesus stood up in the synagogue and took down the scroll of Isaiah and began to read, he chanted. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he sang. In our parish in Busselton, we are learning a new sung version of the Lord’s Prayer, and some people are objecting. I smile because I know that Jesus would have chanted his prayer both to help memorisation and also to convey awe and reverence:  [sing] “Our Father in heaven.”  The disciples sang a hymn on their way to the Mount of Olives.

Broadening our view of Jesus from Jesus the man to Jesus the Christ who was with the Father from the beginning, the Wisdom who was beside the Creator, we know that Wisdom played (Proverbs 8:31). Some scholars believe that Wisdom, the Christ, was playing a musical instrument. In Job, the “morning stars sang together”. Christ is the morning star (Rev. 22:16), so if we conflate Job and Revelation, we can hear the eternal Christ – the morning star – still singing. John Calvin says that Christ is the Precentor, the lead singer in heaven.

Great theologians of the 20th Century like Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were accomplished musicians. Music, they said, especially like that of Mozart and Bach, invites us into the Gospel like parables.

But I think the importance of singing and worship is not just hi-falutin’ like that. When we sing in worship, we have to listen to each other and take into account each others’ voices. It’s nice to have a choir or a strong voice to give us a good idea of the pitch and the pace, but it’s the reality of hearing our relationships as the Body of Christ that strikes me as important. We hear each other, we give way to each other in love, we allow the Body to change us and improve us.

Most Sundays as we listen to each other we hear high voices and low voices, adult voices and children’s voices. Occasionally some brave tenor will sing his part. The voices weave together to create something new and striking. We are transformed as individuals and as a community.

Over the last 10 years my attendance at church has been hit and miss because of my health. And I do miss it. I miss receiving the sacrament in company; I miss the people; and I really miss the singing. The music incarnates the Church for me. The Roman Catholics at Vatican II hit on something when they said that “the incarnation brings heaven’s song to earth so that earthly singers can join” (“Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy §83). We sing and we become the Body of Christ here and beyond here.

Singing reveals emotion. How often have we heard people say, “Oh I can’t sing.” Sometimes they might mean they are worried about singing in tune, but more seriously I think they’re worried about what people will think of them. My daughter says to me, “Dad, you sing too loudly and I get embarrassed.” It’s easy to be put off.

But be encouraged to sing. Be encouraged by Jesus for whom singing was important. Be encouraged because of what happens when you allow your voice to come out. Your sisters and brothers will hear the emotions you reveal and will accept you and love you for those emotions. Your voice with its emotions will become part of the rich tapestry of sound. And when we all allow the song to sing in us, when we let go and let the music happen, then we allow Christ to sing through us.

In a few moments we will renew our promises as novices and as professed. We will sing solo for a bit and allow ourselves, our whole lives to be sung by Christ, his instruments, his voice, his song.

Clement of Alexandria said back in the 2nd Century, “Christ plays the instrument of creation (especially the human part of it), Christ sings the true song, and Christ himself is the new song played by the Father.”

It’s a wonderful thought that may have occurred also to Francis playing air violin on two sticks. We are a musical instrument, and if we let go in the music, Christ plays us, Christ sings us, Christ lifts us up to the Father.

Please sing with me:

Father, we adore you,
Lay our lives before you,
How we love you.

Ted Witham
This sermon much inspired by the essays in Jeremy Begbie’s excellent
Resonant Witness on music and theology.