‘The letter kills but the Spirit gives life.’ Three weeks ago I was sitting in the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester soaking up the exhilarating sounds of Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand. Now you wouldn’t expect me to speak for long here without giving a little BBC plug – so I have to tell you straightaway that you too can hear this extraordinary performance – ‘cosmic’ as one critic described it – tomorrow evening on Radio 3 when it will be broadcast as part of the Mahler in Manchester series. Any rendition of Mahler 8 is an occasion of course. It was first performed almost exactly 100 years ago in Munich with over 500 voices, an orchestra of over 150, a children’s choir of 350 and 8 soloists – so it’s no wonder it became known as the Symphony of a Thousand, a title deplored by Mahler himself because he thought it suggested a circus!
Mahler was a deeply religious man, more by temperament than faith. Though he was Jewish by birth, Judaism held little attraction for him. He was more drawn to Catholicism, though his Catholic conversion at the age of 37 was more a pragmatic necessity in order that he could be eligible for the post of Director of the Vienna Opera. He put his religious ideas into his symphonies, three of which, the Second, the Third and the Eighth, present a comprehensive spiritual view of life. But it is the Eighth which seems to sum up his central belief in the aspiration of every creature towards God. His wife, Alma, looking back on her husband’s life saw it almost as a mission. ‘His battle for the eternal values,’ she wrote, ‘his elevation above trivial things and his unfailing devotion to truth are an example of the saintly life.’
Now you may think I’m putting Gustav Mahler on too high a spiritual pedestal, but it struck me three weeks ago, when listening to that performance – and on the two occasions I’ve sung the symphony too – how Mahler’s musical inspiration is no mere contemplation of an idea. It’s a strongly willed plea for a renewal of the inward fire from the source of all life and light. And that’s why it’s appropriate, I believe, to draw your attention to it on Pentecost Sunday – not least because the first movement is a setting of the ancient hymn for Pentecost ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’ – that great invocation to the Holy Spirit as creator and inspirer with its central prayer: ‘Accende lumen sensibus, infunde amorem cordimus’ – ‘Guide our minds with your blest light and with love our hearts inflame.’
And that’s what the Apostle Paul is wanting for his friends in Corinth, as we heard in the New Testament reading tonight. ‘The letter kills but the Spirit gives life,’ he says. He compares the old written covenant that God gave through Moses (our first reading tonight) with the Gospel – not contrasting bad with good but good with better. The new covenant isn’t a matter of written words alone, but the word is animated, brought to life, by the activity of God’s Spirit. Real encounter with the Christian Gospel changes us on the inside – and what Paul is doing is urging his readers to see God in a new way, to recognise the glory around them and allow that glory to infuse their inner being. So how do we do that?
I remember when I first joined the BBC a few months after leaving university, one of the programmes I worked on as a sound engineer that made a deep impression on me was a series called ‘Priestland’s Progress’ – one man’s search for Christianity – Gerald Priestland, then the BBC’s Religious Affairs Correspondent, armed with his tape recorder interviewing nearly a hundred people about their experience of God. It had a huge following. Strangely enough what I recall most about the series was the ritual, repeated nearly everywhere we went, of concluding each interview by recording at least three minutes of the silence of the room – whether it was a bishop’s study or a suburban front parlour. Each time we explained our curious custom and told our victims that they were free to go and put the kettle on. Almost without exception though they chose to stay – and I mean no disrespect to their eloquence when I say it was usually the best part of the interview! Words about God are not to be despised. But when the words are done, there’s still more, unsaid, in the silence.
I really ought then to finish there! But let me spend just another minute or two trying to define the recognition of the work of the Spirit in our lives by citing one of Gerald Priestland’s most perceptive interviewees, the saintly John V Taylor, one time Bishop of Winchester, who over twenty years ago led a Mission to this University and gave five memorable addresses on consecutive evenings in the Sheldonian Theatre. I remember him talking about ‘bumpings into God’ (an expression which annoyed the atheists) – those experiences which are very common to us all – experiences of recognition, sudden insight, an influx of awareness when you wake up and become alive to something. It may be another person or the solution to a problem – and suddenly the penny drops. Every time a human being cries ‘Ah! I see it now.’ That’s the work of the Holy Spirit – what the Christian creed calls ‘the Lord, the Giver of Life’. And that Creator Spirit has always been quietly, anonymously at work within every human life, within me, within you, drawing our attention to this, to that, opening our eyes, awakening all that is truly human in us, all that is most real.
Of course we can resist the Spirit. Sometimes it’s too painful, too disturbing, to be made fully alive. It’s more comfortable to be a bit insensitive, a bit dead. There are times when we’re stirred with the excitement of a new project, a different interest, an issue of justice that calls for support – but it’s too much trouble to make room for it. Then there are the moments when something strangely beautiful claims our attention, demands that we stand and stare – but it’s too embarrassing in front of our friends. When, unexpectedly, God has become more real, we can’t let ourselves stay with it. These experiences are common to every life, whether they’ve taken a religious form or not. But thank God that his Spirit isn’t easily rebuffed for it’s the Spirit of love, the Spirit of life, striving with our dull, frightened spirits to bring us alive.
‘The letter kills but the Spirit gives life,’ says Paul. He was speaking of what he felt constantly, that what Jesus had brought into the world was a life, an energy and a transforming power. And on this day, the day of Pentecost, we can know this power for ourselves. For this isn’t something that happened in the past and has now died down like a mere gust. The question is rather whether the world will allow this Spirit of God to transform the way we live, or fail to grasp what is possible for us with God. There are in truth innumerable books to read, and vast amounts to learn if we wish. But it’s all vain and stultifying if the Spirit of God doesn’t fill our lives. Come Holy Spirit and fill the lives of those who without you are dead! And teach us to lift our hearts to life with you! Amen.
Canon Stephen Shipley, Senior Producer, Relgion, BBC
23rd May 2010