I REMEMBER the first time I met Michael Mayne. He had invited me as a recently ordained curate to join a theological discussion group he held at his home. He wanted to discuss the quotation from Gerard Manley Hopkins which I had had printed on my ordination card: “For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand.”
As I got to know Michael more, through conversation and his books, it was a quotation that seemed to encapsulate something of his own honest exploration of the world and human experience, as well as his readiness to thank God for the momentary glimpses of him that gave reality a sense of being trustworthy. This is never more evident than in his last book, The Enduring Melody.
In the summer of 2005, Michael was told by doctors that he had cancer of the jaw. He wrote:
"From that icy moment of diagnosis, when you know that everything has changed, I recognised two things. First, that this would prove an unwanted but important test of the integrity of what I most deeply believed, both as a human being and a priest: a kind of inquest on all those words spilled out of pulpits or in counselling others or at hospital bedsides. . . Secondly, I felt the need in whatever lay ahead not to waste the experience, but to write about it as honestly as I could day by day."
What followed was a journal, written in what one friend of his called “the questioning country of cancer”. This forms part three of the book. Part two is an exploration of ageing and the spiritual life, of how things "shift and resettle" as you slip into old age. Part one introduces us to the overarching theme of the work, first expressed by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his letters from prison, when he urged his reader to “pin your faith on the cantus firmus”.
For most of the Middle Ages, church music consisted of the so-called Gregorian chant: one line of melody attached to the words of the liturgy. Until the ninth century, that melody was left unclothed, and was, in effect, the fixed song, or cantus firmus. By the 12th century, it was found that two or more melodies could be combined, and the cantus firmus became the basis of polyphonic composition.
Gradually, the traditional plainsong began to be given to the singers of the middle voice, or “tenors” (from the Latin tenere, to hold). These held the fixed song, while the lower and higher voices surrounded it with developing counterpoint.
Michael believed Bach to be the master in the use of the fixed song: “His fugues are built on a structure of a melody in the home key, the cantus firmus, which he then decorates, turns upside down, plays with, but always comes back to in the end.”
Michael came to believe that the creation was an endless sequence of variations on the unchanging theme of God’s creative love. The give-and-take of love lies at the heart of the universe, and is the deepest melody that we are invited to discover for ourselves.
This cantus firmus of experience had three strands for him: the affirming relationships of love and friendship that we may enjoy; the encounter with beauty in the natural world and in the arts; and the ultimate existential questions, and sense of the transcendent, that come under the heading of “faith”.
The Enduring Melody is a book of distillation. Michael seeks out the truths that lie not on the surface, but at his deep centre, “tempered and pruned over a lifetime”. It is a book that reminds us that faith is a relationship; that it has its honeymoons, its fights and fallouts, and its faithful maturities. God, here, is not an object of human knowledge, but the cause of our wonder, the Mystery who contains and is never contained.
His faith in this book is exploratory, but not vague. He has a compass on the journey. He writes:
My Christian faith has been formed in me as I have reflected on the mystery of Jesus, who is a kind of self-portrait of God in human terms and who, in claiming that God’s name is Father and his nature is love, reveals all I need to know of the One whose creative Spirit holds me in being from moment to moment.
In a world of much consumerist religion, Michael prompts us to make a commitment, instead, to a citizenship, a communal belonging to the Kingdom that Jesus preached. This means “the rule of God, with all that implies. Justice, equity, honour, forgiveness, love.”
The Enduring Melody is a moving, humble, but strong book. It forces us out of conventional happy-ending thoughts of God into a stumbling, half-lit, but truthful journey with him.
In a poignant passage, written near his death, Michael notes that, during all his ministry, he has taken “the soft approach, played down sin and judgement, played up mercy and compassion”; but that, as he faces his end, he looks to “the Gethsemane Christ, the one who shares the suffering. That’s the Christ I need now. One who, being human, was tempted in that garden to turn back from the inevitable outcome, but held true to his vocation.”
Belief in faithfulness — God’s fidelity towards us, not ours towards him — is, at the last, the hopeful, enduring cantus firmus of this book, and of Michael’s life and inspiring faith.
Canon Oakley, Chancellor of St Paul’s, is the author of The Splash of Words: Believing in poetry (Canterbury Press) (Faith, 9 September; Christmas Books, 25 November 2016).
The Enduring Melody is published by DLT at £11.99 (CT Bookshop £10.79); 978-0-232-52687-5.
THE ENDURING MELODY — SOME QUESTIONS
- What has The Enduring Melody taught you about the nature of gratitude?
- What effect has Michael Mayne’s dual status as a patient and as a priest on the book as a whole?
- Mayne writes that illness is both a “test” and a process of “letting go”. How does The Enduring Melody balance the two?
- What significance does the metaphor of the “enduring melody” hold for you?
- “God is in the cancer and its treatment”: which aspect of the book challenged you the most?
- What does the book tell us about fellowship and community?
- To what extent do you think “we are human before we are Christian”?
- “Above all, perhaps, the arts give us delight”: what part does human creativity play in Mayne’s theology?
- Did this book alter or enhance the way you approach illness and suffering?
- Having read The Enduring Melody, how far do you agree with Keats’s claim that “nothing ever becomes real until it is experienced”?
- In our next reading-groups page, on 3 February, we will print extra information about our next book. This is Weatherland by Alexandra Harris. It is published by Thames & Hudson at £9.99 (CT Bookshop £9); 978-0-500-29265-5.
Weatherland looks at more than a millennium of British wind, rain, sun, and snow, peering through the eyes of the artists and writers whose records and interpretations of the country’s moving skies form an integral part of our national identity.
Compellingly written and packed with colour and black-and-white pictures, Alexandra Harris’s book explores the differing feelings that the elements have inspired over the centuries. Ranging from the menacing cold of Anglo-Saxon poetry to the cool aridity of Modernism, and taking in Wordsworth’s clouds and Turner’s sunsets, Weatherland is an engaging study of British sensibility, full of fascinating details.
Born in 1981, Alexandra Harris was brought up in West Sussex. She completed a doctorate at Oxford before taking up a position at the University of Liverpool, where she is now Professor of English.
Her work investigates the relationships between literature, art, and landscape, and seeks to illuminate the lives of writers and artists who shaped, and were shaped by, Britain’s physical and cultural climates. Her debut, Romantic Moderns: English writers, artists and the imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper, won the Guardian First Book Award in 2010, and was followed by a short biography of Virginia Woolf in 2011. Harris has broadcast regularly on the BBC, most recently presenting A British History in Weather on Radio 4.
Books for the next two months:
March: Golden Hill by Francis Spufford
April: Death in Venice by Thomas Mann