Truth and Beauty

tryptich

This morning I attended the funeral Mass of my high-school music teacher, Jerry Phillips. He could be gruff, but now that I’m an adult looking back, I’m amazed at his kindness, tolerance and good humor. We pulled pranks on him that, in my teaching days, would have driven me to red-faced profanity. We  laughed at him (affectionately) behind his back, but he also laughed at us, and he knew how to laugh at himself.

Mr Phillips was self-effacing. We never realized the volume of polyphonic works he had published. Only yesterday did I learn that back in 1965 he was the first person to ever publish a musical setting for the Catholic Mass in English.

This morning’s Mass was refreshingly sober, the focus being on the ritual, with some nice polyphony and chant, and without the three or four friends and family members giving long-winded stories of how great the deceased was; stories which are best left for the after-party when everyone is good and drunk.

The priest who gave the homily did however mention having known Jerry Phillips almost sixty years ago while studying at Harvard. He recalled him as a man “in love with liturgy, music, and with beauty, which is God’s truth.”

 

Beauty is Truth, like a line out of some Romantic poet. It is a concept that I haven’t heard for a while living, as we all do, in an ever more vulgar, sentimental and sophomoric society.

It is an idea that the medieval theologians borrowed from Platonism: everything which exists, to the extent it exists, is good, true and beautiful. Goodness, Truth, and Beauty are aspects of being, and are therefore ultimately convertible with each other. Evil, falsehood, and ugliness are non-being, privations, unintelligible black holes in reality with which the human mind and heart can never really come to terms.

It is an optimistic way of looking at the world, but  foreign to modern ways of thinking. Modern thought defines being as matter and force, very explicitly splits Truth (narrowly defined as science) from Goodness (limited only to ethics) and locks Beauty outside to wander alone in deserts of pure subjectivity.

Maybe there is something to this split; after all, how many of us weave pretty narratives, believe in them for being so pretty, only to discover “ugly truths” about ourselves and others when those pretty narratives come crashing down? In the end we are tempted to think that all human intellectual endeavors, even the modern fetishes for science and ethics, are nothing more than pretty lies designed to disguise the cold hard facts of economics, power, and instinct.

But then, the appeal to “cold hard facts” is also just a narrative (or worse, a self-serving posture) no more entitled to being the default position than any other. What we accept as “fact” is, after all, a function of our meta-narrative. And so we wind up back where we started.

 

The priest opened his homily with reference to an old-timey Catholic prayer to the Virgin Mary, asking her to have pity on us “poor, banished children of Eve, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.”  Poor children of Eve who, if they are capable of knowing truth, can only know it in a human way, by stories and analogies, even the best of which are always a little provisional.

I was glad, for a couple of hours, to step out of the modern narrative and into this one, where truth and beauty are sides of the same mystery. Maybe the “hard truths” are just stepping stones to higher truths. Maybe beauty can serve as a guide. William Byrd’s Non Nobis Domine, was the closing hymn, and expresses much of Jerry Phillips’ style and career.:

 

 

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