Finding the Church in a Bach Fugue

Head of Christ, by RembrandtMany of you have likely read the   classic description of the Church from the 1951 novel Dan England and the Noonday Devil by Myles Connolly. It is a wonderful reminder to us that the Church is not an institution but is a Body, made up of members who, in their own unique way, give witness to the one Body, which is Christ. I am presenting a summary here but you can read the whole quote here: What is the Church.

The Church to me is all important things everywhere. It is authority and guidance. It is love and inspiration. It is hope and assurance. It is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. It is our Lady and St. Joseph. It is St. Peter and Pius XII. It is the bishop and the pastor. It is the catechism and it is our mother leaning over the crib teaching us our evening prayers. It is the cathedral at Chartres and the cross-tipped hut on Ulithi. It is the martyrs in the Colosseum and the martyrs in Uganda, the martyrs at Tyburn and the martyrs at Nagasaki. It is the wrinkled old nun and the eager-eyed postulant. It is the radiant face of the young priest saying his first Mass, and the sleepy boy acolyte with his soiled white sneakers showing under his black cassock….

It is the spire glimpsed from a train window and the cruciform miniature of a church seen far below on the earth from an airplane. It is six o’clock Mass with its handful of unknown saints at the communion rail in the gray dark and it is pontifical High Mass with its crowds and glowing grandeur in St. Peter’s….It is the Sistine Choir and it is the May procession of Chinese children singing the Regina Coeli in Peking.

It is the Carthusian at prime on Monte Allegro and the Jesuit teaching epistemology in Tokyo. It is the Scheutveld Father fighting sleeping sickness in the Congo and the Redemptorist fighting prejudice in Vermont. It is the Benedictine, the Augustinian, the Passionist, the Dominican, the Franciscan. It is all religious and especially the great unnamed Order of the Parish Priest.

It is the Carmelite Sister lighting the tapers for vespers in the drear cold of Iceland and the Sister of Notre Dame de Namur making veils for First Communion in Kwango. It is the Vincentian Sister nursing a Negro Baptist dying of cancer in Alabama and the Maryknoll Sister facing a Communist commissar in Manchuria. It is the White Sister teaching the Arabs carpetmaking in the Sahara and the Good Shepherd Sister in St. Louis giving sanctuary to a derelict child, a home to a lamb who was lost. It is the Little Sister of the Poor salving the sores of a forgotten old man in Marseilles, the Grey Sister serving the destitute in Haiti, the Blessed Sacrament Sister helping a young Negro write poetry in New Orleans. It is the Sister of Charity… It is all the Sisters everywhere.

It is the crippled woman who keeps fresh flowers before our Lady’s altar and the young woman catechist who teaches the barefooted neophytes in the distant hills. It is the girl who gives up her bridge game to drive the Sisters to the prisons and the homes of the poor, and it is the woman who goes from door to door begging for help for the orphanage. It is the proud mother of the priest and the heartbroken mother of the criminal. It is all mothers and sisters everywhere who weep and suffer and pray that sons and brothers may keep the Faith.

….It is the bad sermon and the good, the false vocation and the true. It is the tall young man who says the Stations of the Cross every evening and it is the father of ten who wheels the sick to Mass every Sunday morning at the County Hospital.

It is St. Martin and Martin de Porres, St. Augustine and St. Phocas, Gregory the Great and Gregory Thaumaturgus, St. Ambrose and Charles de Foucauld, St. Ignatius and Ignatius the Martyr, St. Thomas More and St. Barnabas. It is St. Teresa and St. Philomena, Joan of Arc and St. Winefride, St. Agnes and St. Mary Euphrasia. It is all the saints, ancient and new, named and unnamed, and all the sinners.

It is the bursting out of the Gloria on Holy Saturday and the dim crib at dawn Mass on Christmas. It is the rose vestments on Laetare Sunday and the blue overalls of the priest working with the laborers in a mine in the Ruhr.

It is the shiny, new shoes and reverent faces of the June bride and groom kneeling before the white-flowered altar at nuptial Mass, and it is the pale, troubled young mother at the baptismal font, her joy mingled with distress as she watches her first-born wail its protest against the sacramental water. It is the long, shadowy, uneven line of penitents waiting outside the confessional in the dusk of a wintry afternoon, each separate and solemnly alone with his sins, and it is the stooped figure of a priest, silhouetted against the headlights of a police car in the darkness of the highway as he says the last prayers over a broken body lying on the pavement beside a shattered automobile.

It is the Magnificat and it is grace before meals. It is the worn missal and the chipped statue of St. Anthony, the poor box and the cracked church bell. It is peace and truth and salvation. It is the Door through which I entered into the Faith and the Door through which I shall leave, please God, for eternity.

So there it is, The Church. Somewhere in this picture, is you, sharing your gift and serving your role. The Church is Christ. And all of us who are baptized are baptized into Christ, members of his body.

Somehow I sense the rhythm of a Bach Fugue as I read the description above. I know you think I’m a little arcane. But consider…

In the video below an organist plays Bach’s Fugue in C Major. Like any musical fugue, the organist begins by announcing the theme, playing it with his right hand. Soon enough the left hand answers and eventually the feet play the theme in the pedal. The fugue then takes the theme through a series of math-like progressions. Eighth notes become 16th and then even 32nd notes. But always the basic theme is being developed.

Now consider that the organist as Christ, the head of the body, and that the organ as the the Body of Christ. The organ, like any body has many parts. And since an organ is about making sounds, the different pipes make many different sounds. There are diapasons, the reeds, the flutes and the string pipes. The reeds are made up of various sounds like the trumpet, oboe, and vox humana. The string pipes make different sounds too such as viola, salicional, dulciana and so forth. The Flutes too come in many varieties as do the diapasons. And there are wonderful mixtures that give brightness and the deep low notes of the pedal sometimes as low as the 32′ contra Bombarde that makes the whole building shake. Yes, this too is an image of the Church. And Christ is able to make beautiful music with this wonderful variety.

And how does he make this music? Just like with a fugue, Jesus announces the basic fugal theme that underlies every other aspect of the song. And this theme is the truth of the Gospel. And every voice of the Church takes up that theme and sings it out in it own sound, using its own gift, but it is Christ who plays. And he (Jesus) develops and enriches the theme in a kind of development of doctrine that he leads the Church to proclaim. Rich diverse sounds, thematically building and developing. But always there is the basic theme, the fundamental truth.

Yes, here too is an image of the Church in a Bach fugue and in a virtuoso organist making beautiful music through unity with a wondrous instrument.

8 Replies to “Finding the Church in a Bach Fugue”

  1. Wonderful video, Msgr. May GOD continue to richly bless you. Please pray for me, as I will continue to do for you.

  2. What a profound description of The Church?! Last Monday, I went to the house of an old lady with Parkinson’s who moves around in a wheelchair who needs communion. The son informed his mom saying, ‘The Church is here.’ Was I so elated, a lowly minister of communion being called a Church, which probably he meant a representative of Church is here. Well, whatever he meant, I have become a littlest description of Church. Praise GOD in His Kindness and Love. Praise our Church. M

  3. Wonderful, Msgr. Thank you. Now that we have the basics down pat, shall we tackle the St. Anne and its symbolism? LOL

  4. Hey, why is that organist facing the organ? Shouldn’t he be facing the people? Isn’t it all about the congregation in the pews? :>)

    Many thanks for this post and the glorious clip. Bach On !

  5. It’s easy to forget Bach was not Catholic, but I think he should be accorded “honorary” status, kind of like C.S. Lewis.

    1. I agree, Greg. I’ve often wondered if his heart wasn’t moving in that direction near the end of his life. The fact that his son, Johann Christian did later become Catholic has made me wonder even more.

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