The Cantus Firmus
Note: Today’s essay explores a musical metaphor for the confusing complexity of meaning in human lives. Our job as the church may in part be to listen carefully and creatively to the seemingly-dissonant strains coming from science and other “secular” sources, and learning to recognize their deeper harmony with the foundational song of the Lord’s ongoing engagement with His creation. If we have the Father’s tune of grace in our ears, then we, through the Spirit, will give a more powerful witness to the love of the Son.
The telling and beholding of stories bears a certain responsibility. There is a temptation in narrating biographies, and even autobiographies, to reduce the story to one theory or setting, to one secret or encounter that unlocks the mystery of a life. We want to solve the puzzle that is Emily Dickinson, resolve the curiosities of Napoleon, and know the essential meaning behind our own winding roads. But while the mode of storytelling may require certain parameters, life is not usually so neatly containable.
Roger Lundin, himself a biographer, suggests the necessity of awe in any telling of human story—a task in which we are all, on some level, engaged. "To be able to recognize the competing claims and the intricate complexity of human motivation is a gift and a necessity for writing a good biography, just as it is a necessity for understanding fairly and creatively and justly another human life." The task of putting a life into words is surely larger than we often admit. How will you come to describe a deceased loved one to children who have never met him? How will you come to articulate the lives of family members, historical figures, biblical characters, and neighbors? The charge is all around us, vying for a sense of awe.
I have always appreciated the terminology employed by Dietrich Bonhoeffer as he described life to his friend. He spoke in musical terms, and in so doing ushered in the idea that life cannot be reduced to a note or a monotone. The cantus firmus, which means "fixed song," is a pre-existing melody that forms the basis of a polyphonic composition. Though the song introduces twists in pitch and style, counterpoint and refrain, the cantus firmus is the enduring melody not always in the forefront, but always playing somewhere within the composition. For Dietrich Bonhoeffer, life was a great work of sounds and symphonic directions, and the cantus firmus was the essence, the soul of the concerto.
With these terms, he spoke of life before the divine: "God wants us to love him eternally with our whole hearts, not in such a way as to injure or weaken earthly life, but to provide a kind of cantus firmus to which the other melodies of life provide the counterpoint... Where the cantus firmus is clear and plain, the counterpoint can be developed to its limits."(1)
As he penned these lines, Bonhoeffer, who was facing execution and the looming end of his life, confessed life to be an awe-inspiring symphony, a melody to behold with attention and appreciation for a great array of intricate choruses. In this intricacy, there is no better song composed than one that finds as its ground bass a wholehearted love of God. Where the enduring melody of life itself is a tune written and played for God, the composition can resound unto the heavens. It is this type of melody that endures even beyond the chorister who sang it.
When Jesus of Nazareth spoke of life, he, too, spoke of multiple realms, of life as it is on earth and in heaven. Like a great composition, there are layers to faith and belief, Communion and the Kingdom, story and song. There is a sense in which all of our stories are the same, written by the great composer of music and sound. And yet, each song is also uniquely our own. For me, as no doubt for you, there have been minor sounds when life seems removed from any chorus of hope or God seems absent. Then again, there have also been moments when the cantus firmus of love or beauty resounds in major tones, and God comes near in the doxology.
So how do we tell the story of a human life? How do we put into words counterpoints and melodies and tempos? Perhaps we start with the song at the center of our own souls, as we listen for the arrangement in our neighbors':
"By day the LORD directs his love,
at night his song is with me—
a prayer to the God of my life" (Psalm 42:8).
Set in the deepest center of a life, God's presence is the cantus firmus, discovered and embraced over a lifetime. God's love is the enduring melody that puts our stories to song.