Addressing the French Academy of Sciences in 1882, Louis Pasteur quoted an unnamed philosopher who had written: “I have thought for a long time that the person who has only clear and precise ideas must assuredly be a fool. For the most precious notions harbored by human intelligence are deeply behind-the-scene and in semi-daylight, and it is around these confused ideas, whose interrelations escape us, that the clear ideas gravitate, extending, developing, and germinating themselves.” Pasteur then continued: “If we were cut off from this background, the exact sciences would lose the greatness which they draw from the secret rapport they hold with those infinite truths whose existence we can only suspect.”
A secret rapport between infinite truth and exact science…that sounds like the perfect religion to me. Writing in 2002 about his process for composing hymns, Richard Wayne Dirksen further quoted Pasteur:
The Greeks understood the hidden power of things infinite. They bequeathed to us one of the most beautiful words in our language – the word “enthusiasm” – en theos – a God within. The grandeur of human actions is measured by the inspiration from which they spring. Happy is [the one] who bears a god within and who obeys it. The ideals of art, of science, are lighted by reflections from the infinite.
Knowing that the word enthusiasm has its roots in the Greek for God, theos, completely changes the meaning for me. It was a word which had vaguely reminded me of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland determined to put on a show against all odds. Enthusiasm seemed to require multiple exclamation points!! My obvious joy in music-making for the church has often been described as enthusiastic, and I will now wear the mantle of enthusiasm with some pride. I see that it is a word which describes a divinely inspired joy. Exclamation points optional.
Dirksen continued: “My succinct perspective is this: when people sing together, that enthusiasm within each engenders a community-wide awareness of those reflections from the infinite. The sharing of a God within through making music puts us in unison touch with the infinite God, and intensifies our knowledge of and enthusiasm for [God]. Collectively, do we therefore embody and live our theology.”
Accessing the hidden power of things infinite by singing hymns…I believe in that. Great hymn writers, like Dirksen, know that a great hymn begins with the text. The words guide the tune’s creation and give the hymn its character. Writing online for National Public Radio, critic Juan Vidal examined his own surprising encounter with traditional hymnody as a young man:
It would do us good to revisit some of the poetry of a time so different than our own. These old texts merit our attention; for me they carry the same resonance as Shakespeare. Not only are they rich in history, they also draw us to appreciate the wonder of words. Instead of viewing the vocabulary as archaic, I’ve come to see hymns as the language of prayer, and as a way of connecting with those that have come before me.
Could anything be more important right now than connecting with others? Connecting with people next to us and those who came before? When we sing a great hymn – one with evocative imagery and bold ideas, one with a tune that moves us and perhaps surprises us too – we probably aren’t aware that we may be surrounded in that moment by people who look different from us, or belong to a different political party, or believe in things which we find uncomfortable. During a time of shared singing we are given an opportunity to simply expose our enthusiasm as a place where our best selves can germinate. Happy new year.(!)
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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of new connections between old and new.
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