Autumn and the Cantus Firmus

Autumn is with us.  With its perennial intimations of endings, many feel drawn to reflect more profoundly on one or other dimension of the mystery of their lives.  This October, the aspect that keeps coming back to me concerns the nature of my innermost conviction, my fundamental motivation, the constant logo of my soul that sums up my reason for living.  What, in essence, is the bare, core focus that sustains me when all else falls away?

I have just finished Michael Mayne’s The Enduring Melody.  This, too, has stimulated my search for what nourishes my soul in times of spiritual famine. The author, who was slowly and painfully dying while writing this rich and recent book, explored what he called the cantus firmus that underpinned his lifethe fixed song, the plainchant cadence unadorned by harmony or counterpoint.  During the time of our lives many notes will weave their way in and out and around the steadfast refrain, but the basic melody endures.  There’s always a bit of firm ground that never alters.

It is when we find age, autumn, or death upon us that we begin to think about what has remained constant throughout the vicissitudes of our lives; what has offered the persistent direction to a ‘north’ for the compass of our souls.  Is there any musical echo within us about which we can say, with Mayne, ‘This has been mine, and mine alone: however much I have deviated from it and chosen my own note-lengths, this is its ground bass.  There are certain critical truths and experiences that have seized and shaped me, and it is this firm ground that speaks to me of what is authentic, and to which I can return, touching base as it were, at every stage of my unpredictable human journey’?

Looking at the unswerving conviction in the lives of people we admire may help us to reach that precious place in our own hearts.  The persistence of Mahatma Gandhi, for instance, in the pursuit of his vision, was nurtured by his utter conviction of the equality of all people.  He never gave up because the cantus firmus forever played this refrain in his soul: ‘God is to be found in the next person you meet, or not at all.’

In spite of huge disappointments in her life, my own mother’s fierce faith in the ultimate goodness of God was frightening in its certainty.  It saw her through many a bleak mid-winter.  Jesus himself, overcome by his passions, exhausted from his temptations, despairing during his temporary loss of faith on the Cross, never completely lost the deep and persistent reassurance of his loving intimacy with his Father.  That was his cantus firmus, the guardian angel of God that sang to his often-confused soul.  In light of recent confessions and revelations about the faith (or lack of it) in the life of Mother Teresa, we can only wonder at length about the nature of the ‘fixed song’ that kept her motivated though she could not hear it.

Not long before he died earlier this year, the Kerry mystic and scholar John Moriarity wrote,  ‘Clear days bring the mountains down to my doorstep; calm nights give the rivers their say; the wind puts its hand on my shoulders some evenings, and then I stop thinking.  I just leave what I’m doing and I go the soul’s way.’  For many, an extraordinary affinity with nature would be the enduring melody that unfailingly brings the solace, the healing, the enthusiasm to continue along ‘the soul’s way’, or maybe even to start the long journey again.

Not long before he was killed by the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote Letters and Papers from Prison.  Michael Mayne quotes these words of his: ‘God requires that we should love him eternally with our whole hearts, yet not so as to compromise or diminish our earthly affections, but as a kind of cantus firmus to which the other melodies of life provide the counterpoint . . .Where the ground bass is firm and clear, there is nothing to stop the counterpoint from being developed to the utmost of limits.  Only a polyphony of this kind can give life a wholeness, and assure us that nothing can go wrong so long as the cantus firmus is kept going . . . Put your faith in the cantus firmus.’

The truth that lived at the heart of Michael Mayne’s own life, tempered and polished over the decades, was his rich and colourful understanding of the Incarnation, of God’s self-portrait in Jesus.  It was because of his sacramental vision that he could be compared to one of ‘God’s spies’, forever picking up clues about his Creator’s beauty hidden in the ordinariness of things.  He believed that if we knew how to look, everything we see is touched by wonder.  This very looking is, in fact, an act of transforming attention, by which, bit by bit, the world is redeemed.  He quotes one of Rilke’s Love Poems to God, ‘My looking ripens things and they come towards me, to meet and be met.’

People such as Mayne, whose cantus firmus is the song of God as sung by the earth, are always nourishing their capacity for wonder through the work of artists.  The poets, the painters, the dancers – these are the midwives of the mystery of the Presence that lives within creation and its peoples.  They assure us that the experience of life is the experience of the divine.  ‘Make humanity your goal,’ wrote St Augustine. ‘and you will find your way to God.’

To take but one artist, Van Gogh, we do not have to search far to find the basic canvas of his troubled but uniquely gifted life.  His most fundamental brushstrokes were drawn from his passionate belief in the inner light that radiates from everything.  His cantus firmus, too, was based on the sacramental vision arising from the astonishing mystery of Incarnation.  He wrote that he wanted to paint things ‘with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize, but which we now seek to counter through the actual radiance of colour vibration.’

‘The artistic works of Vincent remain behind like sacraments,’ writes Benedictine monk Mark Patrick Hederman, ‘revealing to those who have eyes to see, this new sense and symbolism with which he incarnated the mystery of the presence of God in our world.  His paintings are liturgies which unfold the mysteries of God’s presence in our day-to day world, more powerfully, perhaps, than any written word can do.’

    Having said all of this, there are moments, however, when our life-long life-lines of faith and support seem to let us down.  Picked clean of all ambiguity and honed to essential truth, even our most tried and trusted mantras of meaning will lose their power to motivate our stalling spirit.  The eternal refrain, the fixed song, the enduring melody have grown silent.

These are the times when the only cantus firmus left to us to fall back on may well be the most unnoticed, but most fiercely faithful and graced melody of all, the reliable rhythm of our own breathing and the bright beating of our own heart.