Wild Air

The Veil

July 21st, 2011

“Out of the dim daylight, out of the dim silence broken by the chanting of a choir in response to the thunder of the organ, a veil is woven for God, and the brightness of His attributes shines through it.”   Honore de Balzac

Last week, I attended a funeral.

Some funerals are more shocking and sad than others, and this one was particularly so, since it was for a young father who had passed away silently and unexpectedly in his sleep, leaving a wife, two small children, and a host of devoted friends, including my son.

He had immigrated as a child from his native China, so many of the mourners were Chinese, and the Buddhist service was conducted entirely using words and customs I did not know.   The rite initially seemed strange, but the longer I listened, the more I was drawn in, and it became clear to me that these people, with their bowing and chanting,  were doing the same thing I would be doing in similar circumstances – trying to see beyond the Veil.

If there is a universality in the human experience, it is probably the need to connect with something larger – with God.   Our rites of passage: birth, maturity, marriage, and death, are often carried out with ceremony, solemnity, and prayer.   These are the times when the Veil seems most thin – the times when we can almost reach through it into infinity.   At these times, those we have loved and lost seem achingly close.

The Victorians were especially attuned to this, and they devoted much music, poetry, and thought to the world the we instinctively know exists beyond this one.   In 1858, Adelaide Anne Proctor   expressed it in a poem entitled A Lost Chord, which Sir Arthur Sullivan famously set to music in 1877 as he sat by the deathbed of his brother.   The words are moving – so much so that they may be a bit cloying or even embarrassing.   Finding the lost chord is, of course, symbolic of piercing the Veil.

Which brings me to why I build, play, listen to, and worship to the sound of pipe organs.   Sermons on scriptural exegesis may be interesting, but they don’t even touch the Veil for me.   The sound of a great organ or of a great choir does.   It’s really that simple, and it’s been that way my whole life.  

I guess that’s why I’m happy when I’m wrestling with a dirty diapason or an obstinate oboe.   Touching them, I touch the veil.

RIP, Hua Mei.   You are missed!

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