My husband John has just finished composing a Te Deum in 12 movements, juxtaposing classical and contemporary modes. Over the months of hearing extracts of the text through the study wall, the music gradually coming into form around it, I’ve grown more familiar with it, and been asking myself how it computes with our times.
In an age where we believe that mankind is all, and controls all, but are confronted by the weight of the failure of our management of the earth’s resources, global conflict, poverty and migration, the two words, You God, come like a respite, a pause, a glitch in our systems analysis.
You God, words sometimes used in blame, but also in release. Relief in the idea that the energy of the world may be made to move in rhythm with this one thought. You, God.
The Te Deum is an unusual hymn of praise, which doesn’t skirt around the problem of doubt. It also contains concepts that are difficult for us.
Apostles, prophets and martyrs, white-robed or not, sound archaic and severe, particularly in the light of recent hijacking of the term ‘martyr’. But these are simply people who will not, in order to save themselves, be false to what they believe to be true. Rare company, these days. It could actually be quite refreshing to hang out with them.
The holy Church has not always done a great job being holy. The term ‘holy’ here perhaps says more about how forgiveness and grace work than anything else. But despite it all, the church continues to speak of the mystery of one God whose power is shared and shareable between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in dynamic movement, without hierarchy, domination or coercion. It speaks of the God our society perceives as irrelevant and remote showing up right here among us, defeating the finality of the death which awaits us all by total self-giving, opening new ways of being, of living, and of seeing, with a limitless future. No mention of geography, race or gender, no small print to sign, no concept of national exceptionalism. Just, ‘you opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers’. But… belief is hard.
Belief is also unattractive when it is not accompanied by humility. Asking God to help, to save and to bless, is not staking a claiming some kind of ‘right’ to blessing, but an acknowledgment of frailty and dependence, a request to be kept from messing up yet again, today. Rather than culminating in a blaze of triumphant certainty, the Te Deum ends with an acknowledgement of the fragile nature of our trust: you are our hope, God, please don’t let us down.
A lot of us can relate to that.
The image is the East window of St Martin in the Fields church in London, by Shirazeh Houshiary