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C.S. Morrissey – Global Theatre

Transcendent artwork joins the beautiful and the sacred

Voices Sept. 29, 2017

Father Basil Foote, OSB, (left) and Jon Washburn are seen Sept. 22 at Dunbar Ryerson United Church. A choral work by Father Foote was first performed by Washburn and the Vancouver Chamber Choir in 1982 to celebrate the dedication of the Abbey church at Westminster Abbey in Mission, B.C. It was performed again in 2017 at Dunbar Ryerson United Church to celebrate Canadian choral music. (C.S. Morrissey / The B.C. Catholic)

Vidi Civitatem Sanctam (I Saw the Holy City) is the name of an antiphon-motet composed by organist Father Basil Foote, OSB. First performed in 1982, the motet has now been celebrated 35 years later by the Vancouver Chamber Choir in a concert at Dunbar Ryerson United Church.

On Sept. 22, 20 voices, conducted by Jon Washburn, once again embodied the majestic vision of unusual beauty in this musical composition.

The august occasion was a program of Canadian choral music in honor of Canada’s sesquicentennial, which included breathtaking works by 14 others counted among Canada’s most talented composers.

As a member of the Benedictine monks of Westminster Abbey in Mission, B.C., Father Foote’s special liturgical composition marked an important date in the life of the community.

The choral work premiered in 1982, right after the dedication of the Abbey church. The Vancouver Chamber Choir actually performed it in the new church, in a special concert, likewise with Jon Washburn conducting.

The short composition is a stunning avant-garde vocal work that conveys the eerie and otherworldly quality of St. John’s mystical vision of “the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, adorned as a bride for her groom,” (Rv 21:2).

This artwork needs to be experienced live, and I count myself fortunate to have heard the intricate piece sung flawlessly by the Vancouver Chamber Choir, with perfect vocal control and precision.

The best part of the motet is its rare quality of offering a transcendent experience of both the sacred and the beautiful.

The best part of the motet is its rare quality of offering a transcendent experience of both the sacred and the beautiful.

As the concert left me reflecting on beauty and the sacred, I returned to the discussion of this kindred pair by Sir Roger Scruton in his 2011 book, Beauty: A Very Short Introduction.

Scruton notes beauty is a special kind of experience for human beings. Beauty gives us access to something beyond the physical, as it offers to us an indication that we ourselves transcend the material world.

Just as beauty gives us a feeling of transcending the world, so too does another universal human experience: namely, our encounter with the sacred.

Scruton observes that a transcendental range makes both beauty and the sacred ineffable: “The sacred, like the beautiful, includes every category of object.”

We experience the sacred every time we engage in sacred actions and sacred rites in which we use sacred words and sacred gestures. The sacred can touch everything, from the most general (time and place) to the most particular (sacred clothing).

Sacred things “have the presence, in them, of a supernatural power—a spirit which has claimed them as its own.” Something from beyond the physical world sanctifies such words and objects, writes Scruton.

In a similar fashion, our experience of beauty yields evidence of transcendent reality. If we consider human beauty, we will realize there is a “transcendental subject” who becomes revealed in the objective material dimensions of sensation.

Even if this human person appears before our eyes, and within our grasp, this is only the objective manifestation of the “transcendental subject.” Their beauty proves a mysterious transcendent reality is shining through from elsewhere.

The beautiful and the sacred are connected in our emotions.              — Sir Roger Scruton.

Scruton further suggests “the beautiful and the sacred are connected in our emotions” for a good reason. Namely, their common origin lies in our “experience of embodiment.”

Plato observed sexual desire offers an especially intense awareness of being embodied. This intensity achieves its highest form with true love, which Scruton thinks Plato was right to recognize as the pathway from the merely bodily to the highest spiritual experiences.

Yet the ascent to the union of beauty and the sacred can only happen, argues Scruton, because sexual desire and “the sense of beauty and reverence for the sacred are proximate states of mind, which feed into one another and grow from a common root.”

Christian art therefore takes a special approach to human beauty. It takes it as a “signpost to a realm beyond desire,” writes Scruton, in accordance with Plato’s theory. Namely, “beauty is not just an invitation to desire, but also a call to renounce it.”