Last night I had the privilege of being at the Symphony Hall in Birmingham, where my daughter Immy was one of several hundred young singers being conducted by Sir Simon Rattle and singing with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius. Apart from being a proud dad, and from remembering how I felt when I sang that work at university, it was an incredible experience.
I don’t go along with all the theology of the text – the emphasis on purgatory and so on – but the heart of the work is some of the most incredible and powerful worship music I know. When Gerontius is given a glimpse of heaven, and the choir last night sang the hymn ‘Praise to the Holiest in the height’ it was a struggle not to raise my arms in praise, and I failed in the struggle not to cry a few tears of worship and adoration of God. The gentle swell of the final ‘Amen’ will stay with me for a long time.
It was as much a secular concert as that piece ever can be. But it still carried the weight of the faith and genius of Cardinal Newman as poet and Edward Elgar as composer. It was for me a real glimpse of the presence of God.
How much more must have been the experience of those who were in the Temple as the priests played and sang ‘Praise to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures for ever’ (5:13) and the presence of the LORD filled the Temple so much it was visible. The music of cymbals, harps and lyres may not quite have been the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, and Simon Rattle wasn’t there to conduct, but it was the right place and the right time to sing praise.
To me, today, this text comes as a reminder that my calling as a priest and my love of music can come together to help people to experience the presence of God. Praise to the Holiest in the height, and in the depth be praise.