Sitting with the Saint.

At the moment I am reading a biography of Augustine of Hippo by Peter Brown, this contentious African bishop from the fourth century is known for his shaping of much of the worldview of the Western church and his promulgation of, among other things, the doctrine of original sin (perhaps that should be a capital ‘O’ and a capital ‘S’!). The conviction that humanity is trapped by a taint passed on down through the generations was a major feature of my early religious education and, even though I learned that Augustine’s view wasn’t the only one it is still a significant one. All the way through his life it seems he was haunted by the reality of human sin, of the way that although we set out with the best of intentions, to quote Paul of Tarsus we “see in (our) members another law at war with the law of (the) mind” that leads to wretchedness. This view has plenty of room for divine grace but it has still led to a lot of sadness and church manipulation.

But then I came across this from one of his sermons; “Come. His house is not too narrow for  you; the kingdom of God is possessed equally by all and wholly by each one; it is nor diminished by the increasing number of those who possess it, because it is not divided. And that which is possessed by many is whole and entire for each one”. And Peter Brown’s biography reveals another side to Augustine, this time his thoughts on gardening; “When all is said and done, is there any more marvellous sight, any occasion when human reason is nearer to sort sort of converse with the nature of things, than the sowing of seeds. the planting of cuttings, the transplanting of shrubs, the grafting of slips? It is as though you could question the vital force in each root and bud on what it can do, and what it cannot and why”.

I embarked on Brown’s biography because I wanted to know more about this towering figure who was like all of us very much of his time with its controversies and fears. What this book (and Augustine’s own ‘Confessions’) has revealed so far is more than the stern ‘servi dei’ and Christian bishop. It is the man in his place, as surprising as it is challenging. Along with that there is a fascinating picture of African Christianity in the fading days of the Roman Empire before the Goths rewrote the map, not only of Europe, but of the Christian faith.

(Peter Brown’s biography ‘Augustine of Hippo’ comes from the University of California Press. My copy of Augustine’s ‘Confessions’ is in Penguin Classics and Paul’s reflection on the human condition comes from the seventh chapter of his letter to the Romans).

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The crack in everything…..

Whilst browsing through the music streaming service I sometimes use (other streaming services are available!), I notice that Madeleine Peyroux has a new record out, it is called ‘Anthem’ and the title track is her reading of a Leonard Cohen song (recorded on his 1992 album ‘The Future’). It contains the following lines;

“There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in”.

Ms. Peyroux is a regular interpreter of Cohen’s songs (and her versions often take me back to Jennifer Warnes’ fine album of Cohen songs ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ from 1986). But these lines remind me of something which has been on my mind recently namely, the inevitability, indeed the need for, imperfection. I understand that all Islamic art carries deliberate mistakes because only Allah is perfect – searches on the web reveal a reluctance on the part of such artists to talk about this process – the fudged line or the cracked tile reveal the conviction of the artist and also point towards the tension between the search for perfection and the realisation that everything is cracked in some way.

I think that like all poets Leonard Cohen was aware of this and part of ‘Anthem’ urges the reader/ listener to “forget the perfect offering” and recognise the importance of the crack that lets the light in. For me, this suggests that we can only be who we are, and in theological terms, we can only ever come to God as we are, and through grace be accepted broken as we often are!

But to return to the ‘crack in everything’, I have been listening to two recordings that bear out my earlier contention that imperfection can be more evocative than perfection. First, Bob Dylan’s album ‘Shadows in the Night’ is theĀ  first of three recordings exploring songs from ‘The Great American Songbook’ and specifically the songs that Frank Sinatra recorded. There is an ongoing debate in our house about the merits of Dylan’s singing and these records show the voice to be cracked and strained in some places yet capable of real emotion (witness his reading of ‘Full Moon and Empty Arms’ and the moving prayer ‘Stay with Me’ from ‘Shadows’). Then, second and from another musical genre, there is the album ‘Live in London’ by the trumpeter Chet Baker and recorded in London in 1983 – again the once golden voice is cracked and in places the trumpet playing is uncertain (and in others the complete opposite!!), yet the overall effect is very moving and, in company with the rest of the quartet (pianist John Horler, bassist Jim Richardson and drummer Tony Mann) is a powerful example of great jazz. Baker was one of the great ‘lost boys’ of jazz (his story is told in James Gavin’s powerful biography ‘Deep in a Dream’), his early promise as a singer and trumpeter marred by later struggles with drugs. Yet I believe his talent as a musician is ripe for re – evaluation, and this album, along with a second set recorded on the same night and recently released, should go a long way to helping that process. Baker’s earlier records are full of invention and fire and I think that whereas Miles Davis is often the trumpeter par excellence (and nobody would doubt Davis’ fecundity of imagination and style), players like Chet Baker are just as important, for all that they navigate a more ‘traditional’ jazz landscape.

So brokenness and imperfection are often more eloquent than the perfection we all search for and in musical terms we are living in era of the ‘out – take’ where the first takes, false starts and scratchy sketches are properly recognised as part of the creative process. Perhaps the psalmist had it right when he reflected that although he felt like “a broken vessel’ because of the vicissitudes of life, in the midst of his brokenness he could still wait for God’s grace as the light comes through that crack in everything; “Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord”.

(Bob Dylan’s album ‘Shadows in the Night’ was released on Columbia in 2015, the Chet Baker set ‘Live in London’ (volume one) comes courtesy of the good folks at Ubuntu Records, James Gavin’s biography of Chet Baker (‘Deep in a Dream The Long Night of Chet Baker’ is published by Vintage Books 2003. The wise words from the Hebrew Scriptures come from Psalm 31).