In our last post, we explored the directional significance of music: music draws us somewhere. A song begins at a tonal home, what we call the key, and then, the music departs, it goes on a journey, and that journey is marked by a kind of tension, a tension that arises from the dissonance of sensing that we are far away from home. But, tonal music will always resolve that tension by bringing us back home, back to where we belong.

But to where are we ultimately drawn?

Music as a Bridge between Time and Eternity

The church exemplifies a profound appreciation for the directionality of music. Specifically, the church has imagined music as a mystical cosmic bridge between time and eternity. The interrelationship between time and eternity appears to have been initially explored by Plato, in his Timaeus, who in effect brings to fruition the concept of a preexistent sense of time in which the temporality we experience is but a reflection of a trans-temporal reality.[1] For Plato, the Father of Creation, who is eternal, ordered the cosmos in such a way as to image forth eternity, so that the transitoriness of the universe, its successions and repetitions, provides temporal and spatial analogies to eternity in relation to which historical events can be interpreted.[2] Hence, for Plato, time is an icon (ikon) of eternity, a succession of intervallic periodicity that reflects the timelessness of eternal reality. He believed that music could serve to order rightly the senses, thereby enabling the soul to ascend into eternity, what Plato calls in the Symposium 210 a-d, “the wide ocean of intellectual Beauty.”

For the early church, particularly the Greek Fathers, the Christ-event radically re-appropriated this Platonic conception of time, eternity, and music. In his series of sermons on the six days of creation, the Cappaodician, Gregory of Nyssa, explained God creates day one as a circular pattern of evening and morning to which all successive moments conform “because Scripture wishes to establish its relationship with eternity” (On the Hexaemeron II.8). He develops this insight in terms of his conception of what has been called epektasis, which involves a cosmic movement towards God based on an intense desire or longing, an arduous love on the part of the human soul to be filled with the inexhaustible plenitude of God’s infinite Beauty. This is what God uses to awaken a love within us and thus draw us up into a relationship with himself. Gregory describes this longing in his work, The Life of Moses, which re-imagines Moses’ life as paradigmatic for a distinctly Christian conception of spiritual ascent:

Such an experience seems to me to belong to the soul which loves what is beautiful. Hope always draws the soul from the Beauty which is seen to what is beyond, always kindles the desire for the hidden through what is constantly perceived. Therefore, the ardent lover of Beauty, although receiving what is always visible as an image of what he desires, yet longs to be filled with the very stamp of the archetype. And the bold request which goes up the mountains of desire asks this: to enjoy the Beauty not in mirrors or reflections, but face to face. (Life of Moses II.231-2)[3]

The key characteristic of this stretching-out of the soul towards God is its eternal dynamic: there is no end in this longing, for no matter how much one is filled with divine Beauty, one longs for more. What this means is that every ‘moment’ we experience with God always anticipates a greater moment. Having been redeemed in Christ, time is always moving towards eternity as it is drawn upwards through the ongoing promise and fulfillment of evermore Beauty.

We might appropriate music as a metaphor for Gregory’s epektasis, for music is intelligible only as each tone in the melody anticipates its subsequent tone. Conversely, each successive tone is intelligible only in relation to the note that precedes it. Like eternality, there is no memory in music, in that all previous tones are drawn into each successive note. Thus, all the tones that compose a melody line are inextricably bound up with each other, such that every moment of a piece anticipates a greater moment, a moment of resolution wherein the whole is made manifest.

Gregory’s vision of the eternal ascent of the soul into the infinite Beauty that is the inner life of God was developed further by a writer from the beginning of the sixth-century known to us only under the pseudonym, Dionysius the Areopagite. Dionysius draws together time and eternity in a unique cosmic vision where heaven and earth are united through the sacramental life-world of the church, in which all things are drawn up ever more into the inner life of God. The whole of the created order is envisioned as continuously praising God through the divinely revealed names or attributes of God, which disclose his character and his glory that are otherwise beyond the comprehension of finite creatures.

In his Celestial Hierarchy Book VII, Dionysius depicts the divine harmony that holds the totality of creation together in what we might call a ‘physics of praise.’ Dionysius describes how God-glorifying heavenly hymns cascade sonically downward from the seraphim, through the heavenly hierarchy of archangels and angels, and pour into the temporal world of creation through the life-world of the church, thus restoring the cosmic harmony of God’s praise resounding in the eternal and temporal realms. Having been revealed restoratively in Christ, music on earth is transformed into the divinely revealed bridge between heaven and earth, the eternal and the temporal, that draws us up into the world of celestial life, the infinite plenitude of Being that is the inner life of God.

In our next post, we will explore how the choral arts realize this stunning vision of music.

Until then, how does this time/eternity relationship shape the way you understand or hear music?

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[1] Timaeus 37D-39A.

[2] Arno Borst, The Ordering of Time: From the Ancient Computers to the Modern Computer (ET by Andrew Winnard; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 9.

[3] Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, trans. by Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson (New York: Paulist Press, 1978).

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