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Easter 4 BCP

Rostropovich and Vezelay

06 May 2007 11:00 | Fr. Roderick Leece

'When he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth.'

The Spirit always brings life - indeed we talk about the life-giving Spirit. And the language used in today's gospel presupposes, and is unambiguous about a living God. A God who WILL guide the world into all truth…very much a project in hand, and eternally so, as we receive and learn more about the absolute truth which is contained (as are we by Christ) only within the Holy Trinity.

I am attached to an understanding and theology of truth that is always linked with beauty. Maybe John Keats' famous Ode on Grecian Urn leaves a subliminal residue. For the Psalmist (85) we see that mercy and truth are met together. In the Holy Eucharist and not least in our own participation in worship here at St. George's, all of us are involved in our own little trinity of mercy, truth, and beauty. And God, who is surely the audience for our worship (some people think the congregation is the audience…not so…the offering is made by all of us unto the heavenly throne), God delights in the offering we collectively make.

Another word that might reflect the link between truth and beauty is of course integrity. Spirit, life, mercy, truth, beauty, integrity. A worthy aim for any life well lived. And the dance between these divine qualities is occasionally incarnated in the lives of extraordinary people even in our own time. I was fortunate to have heard quite a lot of Rostropovich's 'cello playing when he was at the height of his art from the early 70s onwards - performances of the Dvorak concerto and the Brahms Double remain in my heart. That kind of soul has to come from somewhere, and on discovering more about him on reading the recent obituaries, the humanity, the liveliness and infectious energy of the man clearly had a gilded authenticity which affected huge numbers. Ultimately his life was about others - and the vast chasm between that sort of life and the present obsession with celebrity (which is all about self) is shown up in revealing relief. With repertoire that suited he was a fine conductor, and though I knew of his links with Shostakovitch and Britten (whom the Russian composer admired deeply) I hadn't appreciated that he was also a pianist. Spirit, life, mercy, truth, beauty, integrity. Revealed on another famous occasion when Rostropovich simply turned up with his 'cello to play Bach as the Berlin Wall was crumbling down. I haven't got his recordings of the Bach suites yet, but am not surprised he waited until he was 63 before deciding to record them. He financed and controlled the project himself in case he wasn't pleased with the final product…but what inspires me most as we think about truth and beauty met together…is where he decided to make the Bach recordings. The stunning 12th Century Romanesque Abbey in Burgundy where the supposed remains of St. Mary Magdalen are venerated at Vezelay. The church is built so that at midsummer the sun creates a glorious pathway of light up the centre of the nave, whilst at midwinter it lights up the capitals of the nave pillars. A pinnacle of musical composition performed within a masterpiece of stone. For Rostropovich this surely wasn't only about the fine acoustics, but an act of humble worship…an offering of beauty and truth unto God himself. Fortunately he was satisfied enough to share the results. But the truth and beauty of music was only a pointer for Rostropovich, and he was led into other truths of the human spirit with his championing of human rights and dignity.

Throughout the bible the Spirit brings life and order, and for all of us there are always new fronts of life to be opened up, and at any stage along the road. The Spirit, or Comforter as in King James' Bible, the 'paraklitos' is mentioned 4 times solely in John's gospel out of a total of 5 references in the whole of the New Testament. In using the highly significant title 'paraklitos' St. John is giving the Holy Spirit an unusual term reserved mostly for juridical or courtroom contexts. Since the Holy Spirit is described as 'another Advocate' the implication is that Jesus himself was the first Advocate, and thus the Paraclete does many of the same things that Jesus said and did. The other word 'pneuma' used in connection with the 'Spirit of Truth' is again exclusive to St. John (14v17, 15v26, 16v13 and 1John 4v6).

The Spirit has several different roles in John's Gospel…as companion…as teacher, reminding the disciples of Jesus' own words and teachings…as advocate…as judge, who will convince or reprove the world of sin…and lastly as revealer guiding into all truth. Yet the relation of the Spirit to God and to Jesus is complex. There are several questions: Is the Paraclete sent by the Father (14v16, 26) or by Jesus himself (15v26, 16v7)? Why are we told the world cannot 'receive' the Spirit (14:17)? And in today's gospel, why can the Spirit not be sent until after Jesus' departure (16:7)?

Guiding…into all God (who is truth), into all Christ, to whom the bible bears witness…is the Spirit's purpose. Some say it is the bible that guides into all truth, but the bible itself says this is the work of God's living Spirit. This suggests to us an approach not from a narrow interpretive perspective - not a straight jacket which would reduce Scripture to a book of history and answers from the past…but rather more akin to art or music…when beauty and truth are met together, and the impetus is to strive for a perfection, a truth, a beauty which is forever beyond. Being led into ALL truth will always be a work in progress, and the gift of God.

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