Beyond the menace: a review

Psalms take a back seat during the season of Advent. This Sunday 5 Dec and next, the Lectionary lists no psalm. Then Christmas is upon us with its carols and readings for the nativity.

Like Fagan in the musical ‘Oliver’, we take the opportunity of “reviewing the situation” after some unsettling times during the pandemic.

Sometimes, as in the last two years, forbidding circumstances threaten lives and dampen hopes. Viral wraiths of frustration, sickness, inconvenience or fear have crept along our eerily quietened streets and looked into our isolated houses.

Barriers seem to rise tall in our path with just a few small chinks in the armour, tiny gaps that seem to offer cold comfort.

Such is the first impression as the visitor to Ronchamp in Haute-Saône, France ascends the hill towards Le Corbusier’s Chapelle Notre-Dame du Haut from the south. This church is like nothing our visitor has encountered so far in her travels. Its strange mass, its twisted edge and frowning grey roof overhang might well be some malevolent being from Star Wars, or from J R R Tolkein’s imagination, rather than a haven of peace and security.

The apparently random small gaps in the great concrete south wall (are they really windows or defensive electromagnetic force ports?) can surely admit precious little warmth and light into the dungeons of the interior.

Yet things are not always as fearsome as they might initially seem. Even our amazed visitor to Corbusier’s fantastic 1955 construction knows that perspectives, impressions and even reality will change with time and viewpoint. Stepping resolutely along the path will open up new vistas.

So she climbs on, dismissing all negative thoughts. Inspired by the delight of possibility and discovery, she ignores the whiff of menace in the towering whitewashed exterior. She even draws comfort from historical continuity — the knowledge that this thick south wall is filled with the rubble of the ancient chapel that stood here for centuries before it was destroyed during the Second World War.

She takes the path to the strange doorway with its sparse but colourful decoration to the left of that painfully pierced cement wall. She enters a new world, one that is suffused with a warm glow and quiet peace quite at odds with that first impression. No dungeon here.

Shafts of light, some with different pale hues of red or yellow, fall on rounded stonework and sparse furnishings. Those mean holes flare out towards the interior like squared trumpets, catching slivers of the southern sun to fling their expanding rays through pale coloured glass into the space within.

A complementary indirect pink glimmer is reflected down the tall rounded tower on the western edge. The acoustics, needless to say, would delight any singer of the psalms.

Bells in autumn leaves. The campanile at Notre-Dame du Haut, Alsace, France.

Well, all this is a pale metaphor for lockdown central. Still, despite a forbidding outlook, we trust that flexibility, adaptability, hope and patience have been discovered in your lives in good measure.

‘Looking upwards’. A suffused pink glow enters the sanctuary through the top of the western tower.

True, some people have suffered grievously. Most of us are aware of our incredibly good fortune. So many have found new ways to cope with fear and isolation. Resilience, peace and acts of kindness have lightened a darkened world.

For the psalm singer, like everyone involved in musical and artistic productions, isolation imposes a significant dampener. In some respects, notably the finer moments of working up and enjoying the delivery of close harmony a cappella songs, it was ‘Game over’.

That’s where flexibility and adaptability came to the fore, as we learned new technical terms and means to connect via video link. Limited internet speeds and bandwidth take a more severe toll on music quality than on speech or visual cues.

However, as leaders and supporting technicians grew more accustomed to the tricks of the new trade, we generally achieved a worship presence and medium that became a satisfactory norm. And music has sustained us throughout in a special unique way.

The beat goes on. Here’s Psalm 124 with an appropriate thought in a gospel moment:

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