Monday, 10 December 2012

‘Comfort ye, comfort ye my people’

Fishamble Street, near Christ Church Cathedral … Handel’s Messiah was first performed here in 1742 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

Opening music:

‘For unto us a child is born’ from GF Handel, Messiah

Reading: Isaiah 40: 1-11.

My choice of music for the opening of our reflection this afternoon is one of the best known arias from Handel’s Messiah, second only in popularity to the ‘Hallelujah Chorus.’

But the reading I have chosen (Isaiah 40: 1-11) is not just because the candle we light on the Advent Wreath this week is to remind us of the Prophets, especially Isaiah, but because this too is the reading in the weekday lectionary of the Church of Ireland for Evening Prayer this evening. It was quoted in our Gospel reading yesterday morning (Sunday 9 December 2012, Luke 3: 1-6). It also inspired the opening words of Handel’s Messiah:

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.
Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is
accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned.
The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness; prepare ye the way of the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
(Isaiah 40: 1-3)

I cannot count how many times in recent weeks I have heard snippets from the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ on the radio, in supermarkets and in shopping centres. I hear people humming along to the airs of this well-known and well-loved piece. But how many shoppers know the words they are humming as they push around their shopping trolleys come from Isaiah or, in the case of the ‘Hallelujah Chorus,’ are selective and jumbled excerpts from Revelation 11 and 19 (Revelation 19: 6, then Revelation 11: 15, and then Revelation 19: 16)?

Yet, so many people are familiar with the Christmas story, and with the words of Isaiah, not from reading Scripture, but because they are so familiar with Handel’s Messiah.

More often than not, the oratorio is known as The Messiah rather than Messiah, the simple name Handel gave it. Indeed, it was originally titled A Sacred Oratorio. But then, Dublin people are good at jumbling the name of so many things.

For example, there is a memorable scene in the movie Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx (1970), where Quackser, played by Gene Wilder, misappropriates some information he has received from Zazel (Margot Kidder), an American studying at Trinity, and tells a group of tourists as they pass Saint Michan’s Church that Messiah’s Handel was first performed there.

Of course, the organ on which Handel is said to have composed Messiah is in Saint Michan’s Church. But Handel’s Messiah was first performed in the Fishamble Street Musick Hall, beside Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, on 13 April 1742.

Saint Michan’s Church, Church Street, Dublin … Handel is said to have composed ‘Messiah’ on the organ in the church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Holy Week and Easter seem to us now to be an inappropriate season for Messiah. Yet, although it is associated traditionally with Advent and Christmas, Handel’s original hope was that Messiah would be performed in Lent and Easter.

We also think of both the music and words as Handel’s own work, forgetting that the libretto is a compilation by Charles Jennens (1700-1773), who first suggested writing Messiah when he wrote to Handel, setting out how that he wanted to create a Scriptural anthology set to music.

Jennens was a literary scholar from Baliol College, Oxford, who was known already for his edition of Shakespeare’s plays. Before Messiah, he had collaborated with Handel on Saul and Belshazzar. Handel composed the entire music for Messiah in only 24 days. A planned London debut in Holy Week 1741 never materialised and so Handel’s Messiah was heard for the first time in Dublin.

Jennens chose the texts for Messiah and used them selectively. A large portion of the libretto is from the Old Testament, particularly the Book of Isaiah, but there are New Testament texts too, including passages from three Gospels (Saint Matthew, Saint Luke and Saint John), as well as passages from I Corinthians, Hebrews and the Book of Revelation. In all, he quotes from 13 books of the Bible, although he deviates from the King James Version when it comes to the Psalms, quoting instead from the Psalter in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

Long before Windows, this might have been an early example of “copy and paste”!

Because so many of us hear or have heard those texts in their relationship to one another in Messaih, it has often determined how they – our society, our culture – perceive and receive Isaiah.

Isaiah provides more of the quoted verses in Messiah than any other book of the Bible in Messiah. Yet, who ever asks which parts of Isaiah could Jennens have used but did not? And why? There are some intriguing omissions, probably because of Jennens’ views on atonement theology.

What are Jennens and Handel saying about salvation, as opposed to what are they saying about the incarnation, is a question we are unlikely to wrestle with because we now associate Messiah with Advent and Christmas rather that with Holy Week and Easter.

It has been said at times that Jennens mistranslated, misappropriated and rearranged the texts. And this could give rise, potentially, to many textual debates. For example, what has been the influence and impact over the years of the use of the word “virgin” from Isaiah 7:14, where Jennens and the KJV rely on the Greek Septuagint rather than using the “young woman” in the Hebrew text? But then, of course, Jennens was using the King James Version of the Bible, and not the New Revised Standard Version.

Or how about Job, who is quoted in the aria ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ (Job 19: 25)? These words have become so ingrained in us culturally that they decorate many chancel arches in churches up and down the land. Yet, what was Job talking about here?

Others critics say Jennens and Messiah show contempt for Jews and Judaism. Others still point out that there are sections of the libretto that are obscure.

Nevertheless, Handel’s Messiah offers real potential for devotional or Bible studies in small groups or in parish settings, where so many people, even if they have never sung Messiah, are used to listening to it at this time of the year with a combination of affection and faith.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral. This reflection was shared at a faculty meeting on 10 December 2012.

With the Saints through Advent (11): 10 December, Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton ... “to be grateful is to recognise the Love of God in everything he has given us”

Patrick Comerford

Thomas Merton (1915-1968), who had a had a major influence on modern western spirituality, has been described as the greatest Roman Catholic spiritual writer of the 20th century, and is remarkable for his contributions to reintegrating spirituality and theology. Although he has not been canonised in the Roman Catholic Church, he is commemorated on 10 December in the Calendar of the Episcopal Church.

Thomas Merton is the author of 70 or more books and is best known for classics such as The Seven Storey Mountain, New Seeds of Contemplation and Zen and the Birds of Appetite. His writings cover a wide range of subjects, including spirituality and the contemplative life, prayer, and religious biography.

He was also deeply interested in issues of social justice and Christian responsibility. He did not shy away from controversy and addressed race relations, economic injustice, war, violence, and the nuclear arms race.

Thomas Merton is also remembered for his attempts to rearticulate the contemplative-monastic life and the Christian mystical tradition for today’s readers, his role in fostering ecumenical relations, particularly between Anglicans and Roman Catholics, and his role in interfaith dialogue, especially between Christians and Buddhists.

Thomas Merton was born in Prades, Pyrénées-Orientales, in France on 31 January 1915. His father was from New Zealand and his mother was a Quaker artist from the US. While the family as staying in England, Thomas Merton lived at 18 Carlton Road, Ealing, and was baptised in the Church of England.

The family later settled in New York. The birth of his brother, the death of his mother while Thomas was six, and the long-distance romances of his father created an unsettling life for Thomas Merton for some years. His father died when he was 15 He returned to England to complete his schooling at Oakham, a public school in Rutland, and then enrolled as an undergraduate at Clare College, Cambridge.

‘Shall I … wake up the dirty ghosts under the trees of the Backs, and out beyond the Clare New Building’ (Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain) … punting on the Backs, behind Clare College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Some accounts say that he fathered a child while he was at Cambridge, but that the mother and child were killed in the London Blitz during World War II.

Without completing his degree at Cambridge, he returned to the US, and became a student at Columbia University in New York, where he developed friendships and relationships that would nurture him for the rest of his life.

Although he was nominally an Anglican, Thomas Merton underwent a dramatic conversion experience in 1938 and became a Roman Catholic. He recounts the experience of his conversion in his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, which became a spiritual classic when it was published in 1948.

In 1941, Thomas Merton joined the Trappists, the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, entering the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky.

As a Trappist monk he was known as Father Louis, and his gifts as a writer were encouraged by the abbot. In addition to his translations of Cistercian sources and his original works, Thomas Merton carried on a prolific correspondence with people around the world on a wide range of subjects. Some of his correspondence takes the form of spiritual direction, some shows his deep affections for friends outside the community, and much of it demonstrates his ability to be fully engaged in the world even though he lived a cloistered life.

On 10 December 1968, Merton was in Bangkok in Thailand to attend an interfaith conference between Catholic and non-Christian monks when he got out of his bath to adjust an electric fan. He was electrocuted when touched an exposed wire with his wet hands and died a painful death.

On the very same day – 10 December 1968 – Karl Barth also died. He was one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century, and Pope Pius XII regarded Barth as the most important theologian since Thomas Aquinas.

Thomas Merton’s former family home at 18 Carlton Road, Ealing, a short walk from Ealing Abbey, is now a home of the Sisters of the Resurrection.

Thomas Merton in his own words:

Thomas Merton ... the “beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves”

The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.

By reading the scriptures I am so renewed that all nature seems renewed around me and with me. The sky seems to be a pure, a cooler blue, the trees a deeper green. The whole world is charged with the glory of God and I feel fire and music under my feet.

A life is either all spiritual or not spiritual at all. No man can serve two masters. Your life is shaped by the end you live for. You are made in the image of what you desire.

Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

To be grateful is to recognise the Love of God in everything he has given us – and he has given us everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of His love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from Him. Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise of the goodness of God. For the grateful person knows that God is good, not by hearsay but by experience. And that is what makes all the difference.


Gracious God, you called your monk Thomas Merton to proclaim your justice out of silence, and moved him in his contemplative writings to perceive and value Christ at work in the faiths of others: Keep us, like him, steadfast in the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Isaiah 57: 14–19;
Psalm 62;
Colossians 2: 2–10;
John 12: 27–36.

Select reading:

Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1948).
Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation (Norfolk, Connecticut: New Directions, 1949).
Thomas Merton, The wisdom of the desert; sayings from the Desert Fathers of the fourth century (New York: New Directions, 1961).
Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (New York: Doubleday, 1966).
Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 1972).

Laurence C Cunningham (ed), Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master. The Essential Writings (New York: Paulist Press, 1992).
Laurence C Cunningham (ed), Thomas Merton and the Monastic Vision (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999).
Esther De Waal, On Retreat with Thomas Merton, A Seven Day Programme (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2011).
James Forest, Thomas Merton, a Pictorial Biography (London: Catholic Truth Society, 1980).
Monica Furlong, Merton: A Biography (London: Ligouri, 1995).
Michael Mott, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986).
Philip Sheldrake, A Brief History of Spirituality (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin..