A sermon given on Monday, July 1, 2019, at The Church of the Advent, Boston,
in observance of the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul (transferred),
and hosting the Association of Anglican Musicians

Restoring, Transporting, Resounding

The king was out of his mind. King Philippe V, he was, grandson of Louis XIV of France. Philippe sat on the Spanish throne, ruling that country in the early 1700s. The nature of his mental illness is hard to say, from such a distance. He would howl long into the night; lie in bed in his own excrement; play endlessly with clocks; go days – sometimes weeks – without talking. That he was not deposed from his throne was remarkable. That he was able to hold on was thanks, in large measure, to Farinelli.

As this gathering will know more likely than most, Carlo Farinelli was an Italian- born singer in a family of singers. At the age of ten, upon the authority of his parents, Carlo was entered into the ranks of the castrati. That which we gather to have been a pure, genderless, ethereal sound was, of course, a sound born of barbaric cruelty, something that doubtless should never have been heard and should never be heard again.

When he was 32 years old, Farinelli was persuaded by King Philippe’s wife Isabella to come to Spain, to sing for the ailing King. And sing he did. Some of you will have seen Clare van Kampen’s play Farinelli and the King, which ran four months in London in 2015, and three months on Broadway last year. As imagined by van Kampen, Philippe receives Farinelli initially because he senses a certain bond in circumstance. “We were both made [who we are] against our will,”[i] the King tells the castrato: It is no more natural for one to be a king than it is for the other to be what he is. Both have been “robbed of normality.” Both men, concludes the King, have unreasonable, impossible expectations heaped upon them – by their families, by the public, even by God.

Philippe: “You have a world of subjects – as I do. Mine were given to me by God, though. I wish I were a pagan.”

Farinelli: “Why?”

Philippe: “Many gods are fun; one is a nightmare. … He keeps us on a tight rein.”[ii]

If Farinelli was accepted by the King at first for his companionable brokenness, he was kept on for the ethereal beauty of his singing. His music had its way with the mad monarch. Gradually, but inexorably, the king was drawn out of his isolation and darkness by that music. It re-centered him, it re-focused him, it restored him. It reconciled him to the world around him – even to the impossibility of his vocation. That which the King termed the “music of the spheres” evoked truth, love, and beauty. The king was brought back from his dark place of despondency, his loss of purpose, his sense of inadequacy, relieved of his anxiety and his isolation. Farinelli sang him to his senses – at least for a time.

Last year, having just seen the play in New York, I conveyed this story to the clergy of Massachusetts at their Holy Week Chrism Mass with Renewal of Ordination Vows. It is an unwise and unappealing aspect of our vocation that clergy too often talk as though, like the King or the castrati, we were somehow forced into holy orders. We weren’t. We discerned it and we professed a calling to it. However, the isolation, the overwrought expectations, and a sense of inadequacy and discouragement – these things are familiar to those in holy orders.

I believe that church musicians are prone to the same challenges – byproducts of a relentless dedication to excellence, devotion to God, and service to worshipping communities sometimes (shall we say) ‘uneven’ in their appreciation of the gifts and the sacrifice you offer. Many of you are bi-vocational, adding its own features of impossibility and anxiety. As leaders in religious communities, then, clergy and church musicians alike might resonate with Philippe’s evident need for relief from isolation and disquiet.

And if we need such a thing, how much more does the world around us need it: a world marked by unease, isolation, inadequacy – a world, frankly, like Philippe, descending into madness! How else to describe a nation which owes its very existence to immigration yet is determined to turn its back on immigrants? How else to describe a world which seems willing to commit ecological suicide? How else to describe a culture in which the solution to too many guns is thought to be more guns? All of it is madness, surely.

So if we are caught in our own vocational miasmata, and collectively in a cultural and global madness, then I expect we need Farinelli to sing us back to our senses. We need to be inspired again. We need to glimpse a beauty far beyond our mundane, quotidian existence; we need to hear a truth that puts “truthiness” and “alternative facts” to shame; we need to know a love that proves itself by its willingness to lose itself. Beauty, truth, love – this is the song of Farinelli that our world needs to hear.

Musicians here in the Diocese of Massachusetts have often heard me assert my conviction that music is the church’s 8th sacrament. Congregations sometimes claim that coffee hour is the 8th sacrament. Jokingly? Maybe. But I am altogether serious in my conviction that what you administer is the 8th sacrament – maybe even the 3rd. You know that historically the church defines a sacrament as an “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” In other words, something tangible to our senses – seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting – which communicates things that are not tangible to our senses. Big things. True things. Spiritual things. Cosmic things.

Music, I need not tell you, has the power to do exactly that. To move us deeply, from the inside out. To transport us to another place. To make manifest what St Paul calls “sighs too deep for words.”

The joint observance of Peter and Paul in today’s transferred feast is a commemoration of complementarity. The impulsive fisherman and the deliberate scholar; the apostle to the circumcised and the apostle to the Gentiles. Together their witness to the gospel goes far beyond the sum of their individual labors. They complete each other.

As regards Peter and Paul, and complementary vocations, I honestly cannot imagine having lived out the past thirty-two years in holy orders without the collegial companionship, friendship, and profound giftedness of the church musicians alongside whom I have been privileged to serve.[iii] At our best, our witness to the gospel is far beyond the sum of our separate, respective vocations.

Do you understand yourselves as sacramentalists? I hope that you do: stewards of ‘an outward and audible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.’ The beauty of Farinelli’s song smote the mad king, not just because of the quality of his voice, but because his gift took the monarch somewhere else. Its beauty reminded the king that the anxious, lonely isolation which had become his dwelling place was not that for which he was created. Nor is it for us; nor is it for our world. That song the king heard was a song of restoration, renewal, yea even resurrection.

Martin Luther wrote that the gospel “is not what one finds in books …; it is rather … a living Word, a voice that resounds throughout the world … so that one hears it everywhere.”[iv] The gospel of Christ which you and I have been given to convey; the sacraments with which you and I have been entrusted – each in our own way; the reconciling love and high beauty which you and I have been charged to make manifest – these are the “voice” that we are to cause to “resound throughout the world.”

So, friends, resound away! Make your music. Lead your people. Administer your sacrament in quiet corners, for consolation. Administer it in faithful communities, for inspiration. Administer it to the hurting world, for healing. Sing for us a song of grief. Sing for us a song of hope. Sing for us a song of beauty and truth, for the love of God.

i – Claire van Kampen, Farinelli and the King (London: Oberon Books, 2018), p. 24.

ii – Ibid., p. 24.

iii – Deepest gratitude to James Busby, Patrick Turley, Don Horisberger, Steven Plank, Richard Nelson, and the inimitable Karel Paukert – colleagues extraordinaire.

iv – “Sermons on the First Epistle of St. Peter” in The Way to Heaven’s Doore: An Introduction to Liturgical Process and Musical Style, Steven Plank (Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, Inc, 1994), p. 130.

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