Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Sanctuaries in Time

A few years ago, I read through the December 2005 issue of Gramophone magazine, which was its 1000th issue. Among the several quotations from composers and performers, concerning the value of classical music, I found this quote from composer Peter Maxwell Davies:

Classical music is unique, in that is grammar, syntax and formal construction present an abstract discourage in time roughly equivalent to that of the most ambitious architecture in space, in which thematic material of contrasting functions is subjected to variation, development and transformation in organically consistent ways, with the tonic of the home key providing a sense of direction over large spans of time--not least harmonically--making multi-dimensionality possible in time, with an ever-changing focus between foreground, middle-ground and background, which as a vanishing point enables this to happen in space (p. 19).

At about the same time, I also came across this passage from Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath (Noonday Press, 1975, first published in 1951). Serendipity!

Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn; a shrine that even apostasy cannot easily obliterate: The Day of Atonement… Jewish ritual may be characterized as the art of significant forms in time, as architecture of time (p. 8).

Perhaps because I'd recently found these two passages, this scripture, Exodus 31, stood out.

The Lord spoke to Moses: See, I have called by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: and I have filled him with divine spirit, with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft. Moreover, I have appointed with him Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan; and I have given skill to all the skilful, so that they may make all that I have commanded you: the tent of meeting, and the ark of the covenant, and the mercy-seat that is on it, and all the furnishings of the tent, the table and its utensils, and the pure lampstand with all its utensils, and the altar of incense, and the altar of burnt-offering with all its utensils, and the basin with its stand, 1and the finely worked vestments, the holy vestments for the priest Aaron and the vestments of his sons, for their service as priests, and the anointing-oil and the fragrant incense for the holy place. They shall do just as I have commanded you.

The Lord said to Moses: You yourself are to speak to the Israelites: ‘You shall keep my sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, given in order that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you. You shall keep the sabbath, because it is holy for you; everyone who profanes it shall be put to death; whoever does any work on it shall be cut off from among the people. For six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall be put to death. Therefore the Israelites shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout their generations, as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign for ever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.’

When God finished speaking with Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the covenant, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.

God gives these two men the gift of artistry through his Holy Spirit--a significant enough blessing---so that they can create a place (the tabernacle) for the Israelites to worship God. But almost immediately God turns to the Sabbath and declares it a temporal “place” of worship, connected to God’s creation of time and space in the first chapter of Genesis. (Genesis 1, like Exodus 31, belong to the Priestly source.) Neither the sanctuary in space and the sanctuary in time are unimportant, but it is the sanctuary in time that endures for Israel.

I don’t necessarily want to make a connection between the Lord’s commandment for a Holy Sabbath and the language and nature of classical music. But the confluence of the three quotations amid my everyday reading gave me a pleasant sense of peace and discovery. I love Judaism but I’m not Jewish, and as a workaholic Christian I don’t keep Sabbath rests very well during any day of the week. Until I’m more faithful in that regard, however, perhaps I live in an analogous kind of “sanctuary in time” through the music I play each day for rest and inspiration.

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