Thinking Anew – Looking beyond the words

Felix Mendelssohn: “If you ask me what I had in mind when I wrote it, I would say: just the song as it is.”

Felix Mendelssohn: “If you ask me what I had in mind when I wrote it, I would say: just the song as it is.”

 

Songs without Words is a collection of songs written by Felix Mendelssohn for solo piano between 1829 and 1845. It sounds like a contradiction in terms, but Mendelssohn had his reasons as he explained in a letter to friend: “If you ask me what I had in mind when I wrote it, I would say: just the song as it is. And if I happen to have certain words in mind for one or another of these songs, I would never want to tell them to anyone, because the same words never mean the same things to others. Only the song can say the same thing, can arouse the same feelings in one person as in another, a feeling that is not expressed, however, by the same words.”

It is an interesting thought as we approach Trinity Sunday for there too words can be a problem. The little-known fifth-century Athanasian Creed which had a lot to say about the Holy Trinity used the word “incomprehensible” five times which suggests that this is a doctrine shrouded in mystery and incapable of being fully understood.

That should not trouble us because as Jeremy Taylor, a 17th-century bishop of Down and Connor, said “religion without mystery must be a religion without God”.

Fr Richard Rohr encourages us to look beyond the words and realise what is hidden in the mysterious “three in one and one in three”formula. “The mystery of God as Trinity invites us into a dynamism, a flow, a relationship, a waterwheel of love . . . The idea of Trinity says that God is a verb much more than a noun, an energy and action more than a concept. God as Trinity invites us into a shared experience, where we are invited as participants. Some of our Christian, Sufi and Jewish mystics trusted that all of creation was being taken back into this flow of eternal life, almost as if we are a fourth person of the Eternal Flow of God or, as Jesus clearly put it, ‘I will return to take you with me so that where I am you also may be’. Only a Trinitarian theology makes heaven make sense.”

Language is an issue in both the Old Testament and Gospel readings. In Isaiah chapter 6 we have the excited language of religious experience as the prophet tries to explain his vision in the Temple, an event that would profoundly change his life.

He gives us the date circa 740 BC – the year that King Uzziah died – but then the language becomes extravagant as he reaches for words to explain his dramatic and transforming experience: “I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’”

From the confident words of Isaiah, we turn to the Gospel reading (St John 3) where words are a problem. Nicodemus simply does not understand what Jesus is talking about when he tells him: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

For Nicodemus, words were getting in the way of a relationship he wanted with someone he admired and respected.

To this day religious language can be a problem for people who are drawn to Jesus but confused by the language used to tell his story. We should learn from Mendelssohn because what made the final difference for Nicodemus was not words but the person of Jesus and knowing Jesus is an important step towards understanding the mystery of God in Trinity.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.