A Time of Festival

Sermon given by Simon Nolan, O.Carm., in Chichester Cathedral marking the Opening of the Chichester Festivities. Feast of St Peter Apostle, 29 June, 2008.

Today is a festival day, a day of celebration, a day set aside for singing the praises of God and rejoicing in the giftedness of humanity. And we have many reasons to celebrate. Today is the Day of the Lord, Sunday, the first day of the week. This is the day made by the Lord. We rejoice and are glad. Today we celebrate the beginning of the Chichester Festivities, seventeen days of exuberance in music and art. And today is a festival of the religious calendar, the Feast of St Peter Apostle. Gathered in this cathedral church we salute this day of festival. As God’s pilgrim people gathered in festival, we echo the Easter song, sung down through the ages: Salve festa dies toto venerabilis aevo – ‘Hail thee, festival day! Blest day that art hallowed forever’. (Venantius Fortunatus, sixth century) These are ancient words which in modern times have gained a renewed spring in their step with the music of Vaughan Williams, whose fiftieth anniversary we mark this year.
So, yes, it is right and proper that we should celebrate today and join in proclaiming a time of festival. But is there not a sense in which those of Christian sensibility can find this a difficult thing to do? Christians so often see themselves as exercising a moderating influence. Excess is to be avoided. Propriety observed. A sense of proportion maintained.
As a Roman Catholic, I belong to a tradition which has placed quite an emphasis on rules of fasting and abstinence. As an Irish man I have in my background the ancient Celtic Christian emphasis on penance. Ireland was known in the past as the land of Saints and Scholars. Irish monks did much to spread Christianity throughout Europe. They had a highly developed aesthetic sense, a sense of light and colour as evidenced in the illuminated manuscripts they produced, in themselves wonders of the medieval world. These Celtic Christians had a deep sense of nature, of the beauty of the world around them. Their spirituality was close to nature. One text from the tradition declares: ‘Our God is the God of all humans. The God of heaven and earth. The God of the sea and the rivers. The God of the sun and moon. The God of all the heavenly bodies. The God of the lofty mountains. The God of the lowly valleys. God is above the heavens; and he is in the heavens; and he is beneath the heavens.’ (Bishop Tírechán, seventh century, Collectanea, 26). But these Irish could be a stern lot, given to extreme acts of penance. But even in their austerity, they had a very strong sense of celebrating the Day of the Lord of saluting this day of festival. There was among them a tradition of what was known as ‘welcoming in’ the Sunday. One such prayer of welcome went as follows: ‘Welcome, O Holy Sunday, At your weekly visit to us, Giving us a day and night for answering Christ’ (Quoted in Vincent Ryan, O.S.B., ‘Every Sunday An Easter Sunday’ in Placid Murray, O.S.B., ed. Studies in Pastoral Liturgy (Dublin: Gill, 1967) 192). And in a strange twist in the tale of those famous sixth-century handbooks for Celtic confessors, the Irish Penitentials, those who refused to celebrate the Lord’s day by insisting on continuing a regime of fasting and penance were to be punished. One Irish penitential declares: ‘Anyone who fasts on or ignores the Sunday through carelessness or austerity does a week’s penance on bread and water!’ (Quoted in Leslie Hardinge, The Celtic Church in Britain (New York: 1995) 85).
So to paraphrase those words from the Book of Ecclesiastes beloved of many a preacher: there is a time for everything (Ecc 3: 1-8). Time for austerity and time for feasting and festival. But today I find myself relying in the first place on the advice of a wise mystic from my own Carmelite tradition, St Teresa of Avila, that great sixteenth-century reformer of the religious life, who was, to borrow the words of Evelyn Underhill, a true ‘pioneer of humanity’ (cf. Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness (New York: Dutton, 1930) 133). The story is told of how a friend came to visit Teresa at her convent, bringing with him a brace of partridge. Teresa thanked him and went into the kitchen where she prepared them, and began to eat. One of her fellow sisters came by and asked if it was seemly for a member of an order vowed to poverty and penance to enjoy her food so much. Teresa said, ‘Sister, there is a time for penance, and a time for partridge!’ And she continued to enjoy her meal (cf. Noel O’Donoghue, O.C.D., Adventures in Prayer: Reflections on St Teresa of Avila, St John of the Cross and St Thérèse of Lisieux (London: Burns and Oates, 2004) 38).
Today and these days of festivity are, therefore, time for partridge, for rich fare. Just glancing at the ‘menu’, the festivities brochure, one is dazzled by the array of musical and theatrical events on offer, the impressive range of speakers from the worlds of current affairs, politics and literature. These are days of imagination. A feast of images and sounds, intended to encourage or perhaps even to challenge us to think imaginatively. The courage to think imaginatively is what we need more and more in our world today. As Christians we need to think ever more openly, creatively, imaginatively. As Christians we are certainly called to be intelligent. To be realistic. To face reality. But really seeing our world requires imagination. Without imagination our intellects and our moral sense can be narrow in their focus. Without imagination Christianity is cold and ineffective and Christian love well nigh impossible. One leading writer on liturgical spirituality warns us: ‘The theologian without a sense of poetry and art can become a mortician’ (Philip H. Pfatteicher, Liturgical Spirituality (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1997) 23-4).
The Christian liturgy, our Christian worship, undoubtedly preserves the fullness of Christian experience and tradition. The purpose of our worship is to give glory to God in words, in music, in image and in symbol. Art and music, particularly in our time, should also stretch our imagination, test our limits, call us to larger and more inclusive ideas and views. And, in the context of our worship, far from making us turn in on ourselves, art actually intensifies our sense of the world around us. Art pushes us to see beyond the obvious to what lurks in the crevices of the human-divine experience.
So, my brothers and sisters in Christ, let us think imaginatively. Thinking imaginatively for the Christian involves our being able to look within, to look around and to look beyond. And the arts and the artistic encourage and enable us to do this. Let us think imaginatively of where we are today, in this cathedral church, lovingly restored, in this ancient city of Chichester.
This cathedral is rooted not simply in the ground. It is rooted also in the faith and worship of a community stretching back over many centuries. It reaches down deep into the earth from which we are all made, it rises in faith and embraces all who come to it and lifts the heart and mind to God in worship, music and art. Its cruciform shape reminds us of the cross of Christ firmly planted in the earth its arms embracing all creation but also pointing ever upwards to the heavens, the cross which was once the instrument of death but which becomes the means of life and salvation.
I was captivated by the statue of St Richard by Philip Jackson, cast for the millennium, which stands in the grounds of the Cathedral. As with all holy people, he does not seek to draw attention to himself but rather in a striking and telling pose he points to God, the source and goal of all life.
Art reveals something of God to us. It has the capacity to broaden and deepen our understanding and help us make connections with the divine. Art, if it is good, has the capacity to draw us in to capture our attention to speak to the depths of our being. But it does not stop there. If we are captured or drawn in by a painting or a piece of music we are not simply held on the surface of the canvas or momentarily aware of the sound of the notes on a page, we are moved beyond the here and now and given a glimpse, an insight, into the eternal in what the French organist-composer Olivier Messiaen might call a ‘transport de joie’, an outburst of joy (Olivier Messiaen, L’Ascension: Quatre méditations symphoniques (1933-4), iii: ‘Transports de Joie’).
Art undoubtedly goes to the heart of what it means to be human. It is an expression and celebration of humanity. ‘Art is,’ as G. K. Chesterton declared ‘the signature of man’ (G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, I, 1). In art humanity is at its most creative. In art humanity thinks imaginatively, and thinking imaginatively is immensely powerful if turned to the good. Working for good requires imagination and is itself a kind of art. Thinking imaginatively enables us to be broad-minded and open in the conduct of human affairs, employing the kind of thinking James Joyce describes as a playful ‘two thinks at a time’, making connections and building bridges (James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake, 583.7). And Mozart, whose glorious music adorns our worship this morning, witnesses to the power of imaginative thinking in the process of musical composition, saying: ‘Nor do I hear in my imagination the parts successively. I hear them all at once. What a delight this is! All this inventing, this producing, takes place in a pleasing, lively dream.’ (Letter of Mozart cited in Brewster Ghiselin, The Creative Process: A Symposium (1955) 45).
And, for the Christian, art means so much more, is even more transcendental in its significance. While still in the world we see, through art as through a window, into the realm of God. On looking at an Icon of Christ, St John of Damascus was able to exclaim, ‘I have seen the human form of God, and my soul is saved’ (John Damascene, On Holy Images, I).
Let us conclude as we began. Let us salute this festival day, and as we Irish might put it, let us ‘welcome in’ these days of festivity for another year. I would like to end with the words of the Irish poet Brendan Kennelly who sees with a poet’s eye and grasps the cyclical nature of life and the optimism which is part of every human soul. His poem entitled ‘Begin’ ends:
Though we live in a world that dreams of ending,
that always seems about to give in
something that will not acknowledge conclusion
insists that we forever begin.

(Brendan Kennelly, Begin (Newcastle: Bloodaxe, 1999) 104)