Last month I was in London, very early on a frosty morning. Thomas was in town for a theological conference and I’d tagged along, intent on finally snatching a couple of hours at the British National Gallery (can you believe I’d never visited before?). But I was tired. The day had barely begun and I already felt bone weary, dogged by work half-finished and my own travel bag of current troubles and a few of the headlines I’d read on the bus that morning. The walking day ahead looked very long, and my adventurous spirit seemed to have wandered off without me. It was cold, so I walked aimlessly around the squares of Covent Garden, downhearted, waiting for shops to open, hoping for a cafe.
And then there was music. Abruptly. Music so full and living and quick it was like sunlight slicing through fog. The tint of the air seemed to visibly brighten. I watched people all round the echoing, high space perk up their ears, and start walking toward the music, something golden and swift by Mozart. I followed. We found the musicians, four of them, by leaning over a balcony, looking down into one of the warmer corners of Covent Garden. They were grouped in a half moon, a cellist, a flautist, and two violinists. Bundled in faded sweaters and battered boots, with sly flairs of colour in one violinist’s blue scarf, and the flautist’s red beret.
And they danced as they played, stomped and twirled in perfect, but friendly, laughing sync. They played with frost-reddened noses and fingers, but the swift, laughing music belied the cold. In fact, that music took no notice of anything but its own joy, and it seemed to come from deep within them, part of heart and muscle, emerging into their fingers, received by the strings of the violin or flute or mellow-throated cello. I watched them, with a dozen others, fascinated. People smiled. Toes tapped. Who knew why they had braved the cold and dawn to shatter the fog with their song light. All we knew was that they laughed as they played. They caught our eyes and winked.
And in a sudden, unravelled happiness, standing at that rail, I knew a quality of joy that comes more and more rarely to me since childhood. I knew innocence. Happiness without shadow of fear. I stood there for half an hour as they played on and on, and I left the cold and heaviness of my heart behind. The music made me childlike because for an instant, its potent beauty allowed me a shifted, inner vision of the joy that is coming, coming, coming. The dark, fleeting shadows of my morning trouble, my weariness, my fear, were phantoms that blessedly died in the strong light of the beauty singing around me.
And I knew afresh, as I have known it in my truest moments before, that the great promise of beauty, the thrummed message that sings to us in those moments when we are struck by art or music or story, is that ‘everything sad is coming untrue’. Like Sam in Middle Earth who saw a high star and knew that the Shadow was a ‘passing thing’, I stood in the light of that music and with Julian Norwich, for an instant, I knew that ‘all shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well’.
There are ten theological things I could say about this. There is incarnational theology to be applied. Defences of art and imagination to be made. Book-length arguments to be written…all of which I intend in the future. But for this moment, I want simply to bear witness to the truth that beauty speaks. I want you to know even the briefest gleam of the light that came to me and made me a child, holding my Father’s hand once more. I want you to trust that when beauty comes to you, in its illogical, unreasonable joy, it speaks a truth larger than any darkness you have known.
Trust it. Trust joy. Trust hope.
Because, you know, it’s easy to distrust those things. We live in a world of headlines and reason, where shouted doom and daily controversies define our waking moments. We live in adult hurry. We work and give and measure our success. We live in an age of reason, where we tend to think that only what can be argued is true. We mistrust things we cannot explain or see.
But today, in this season in which we prepare our hearts to receive the risen Christ, I hope that you may be given the grace to stand in the light of a beauty that speaks a joy beyond reason. Redemption, happy endings, resurrections, are entirely beyond explanation. We can only receive them, as we receive new life at the hand of a Creator who is always kindling light in darkness. In this dark and difficult world, may you have the grace today to believe the promise of beauty, to believe it in the face of despair. May a song or a phrase of story or a glimpse of new-sprouted blossom or a burning note of music grip you.
And may you believe the story it tells.