David Hickey links a song and a book in a new series of reviews. Over the next two months he explores the song ‘Particles’ together with ‘The lost art of scripture’ by Karen Armstrong.

[New City Magazine – February 2022 page 16-18]

The song: ‘Particles’

When I found the lyrics of the song ‘Particles’ I knew I had the right one for Karen Armstrong’s book ‘The Lost Art of Scripture’. This track is part of a collection of musical compositions called ‘Island Songs’ which the Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds helped create with 12 local musicians and singers in 7 different locations around Iceland in 2016.

‘Particles’ is one of the most hauntingly beautiful songs and pieces of music I have come across in a long time. It’s composer and singer Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir, vocalist in the popular band Of Monsters and Men, wrote it as a tender reflection of her time growing up in the scattered Icelandic community of Garður. The film of the track shows them recording it inside the lighthouse at the end of the windswept peninsula of Reykjanes, where she used to play as a child. But the central importance of the piece for me here is that its words are poetic:

Here I am
Floating in emerald sea
Keep me dancing
Keep me as still as can be
And I try to keep the balance right
And I try but it feels like wasted time

The ‘meaning’ of the piece is not in the words alone, but in the voice and the musical notes, and the words, all together – in its wholeness. You don’t get the song if you don’t take it all. A strong sense of melancholy pervades it, which I experience and grasp, but I can’t express it easily in a conceptual way – it just springs forth beautifully as she is singing, particularly the final part.

The book: ‘The Lost Art of Scripture’

Nanna’s Icelandic lament reminds me of Karen Armstrong’s very profound and important book ‘The Lost Art of Scripture’, because both operate in that holistic sphere which embraces the whole person. Armstrong’s work is an in-depth analysis of the sacred scriptures of several major world religions and philosophies, but not in a classically academic way. Rather Armstrong highlights one major issue (with many angles) regarding all of these scriptures: she approaches them not just as words and reasonable propositions, but as a complete, holistic entity for the whole person. For Armstrong each of these scriptures was created and designed to be communicated orally, or to be danced or sung, as part of a liturgy or rite or celebration, and generally collectively, rather than being read alone in one’s room. Furthermore, as she points out, they are all made for living, and for enabling us to be of service to other people.

Armstrong’s purpose is to regain ‘The Lost Art of Scripture’, in particular through a shift of emphasis from a narrowly literal and rationalist approach to sacred scriptures, to a more creative, intuitive approach. In this she is following the insights of Iain McGilchrist book, ‘The Master and his Emissary’, and she acknowledges her debt clearly in her work. McGilchrist’s major claim is that the left hemisphere of the brain has come to dominate Western culture, with its abstract reasoning, physical sciences and technology. While the right side’s ‘style’ (found in art, music, poetry, religion and intuitive reasoning generally), has been side-lined.

If you try to approach Nanna’s song ‘Particles’ with the tools of the physical sciences, and abstract reasoning, you won’t get very far. Yet most people who have heard her song grasp what she’s trying to communicate.

Scriptures throughout history

‘The Lost Art of Scripture’ is such a profound and well researched work, ranging as it does in time and culture from the ancient Egyptians, Israelites, Indians, Chinese and Greeks, then forward through the centuries, and onto the misuse of some religious scriptures over the last few decades, that I’m afraid of giving a limited idea of it. But I think it’s worth trying by just giving a few examples of some of the key points she’s trying to get across, in particular from Israel, India, China and Arabia.

Israel: a written and an oral Torah

Judaism’s Book of Deuteronomy (6: 4-9), based on Moses experience on Mount Sinai, teaches that its central message was to be instilled in people, and lived, through the help of constant recitation, repetition and visual aids:

‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.’

But then with the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, and the destruction of the Second Temple, there came new ways of expressing God’s revelations to Moses on Sinai. The Temple was no longer there to contain and express the Jewish faith. Scripture, the written Torah, had been originally stored in the temple. But now its interpretation too became very important, and this led to the oral tradition that a student received from his teacher, learned by heart and passed on afterwards to his own pupils. Now even the interpretation of scripture was something you ‘recited’ carefully and accurately from one generation to the next. The text alone could not provide all the wisdom required for understanding and living the Torah correctly. A student of Judaism learned their scripture’s true significance by living with his teacher, observing his behaviour and seeing the Torah in action in the smallest details of daily life. By watching how he ate, spoke, moved or prayed, he experienced an incarnate Torah.

A rabbi explained: ‘Two Torah’s were given to Israel; one by mouth and the other by script’, and both have the authority of scripture.

So Jewish scripture was kept open: God’s word was infinite and could not be confined to a single interpretation. The rabbis had achieved the extraordinary feat of transforming temple ritual into a spirituality of the heart and the mind, and communal study could now introduce their students to the divine presence. As one writer put it: ‘If two sit together and interchange words of Torah, the Shekinah (the divine presence that had dwelt in the Holy of Holies in the Temple of Jerusalem) abides among them.’

India: Sound and Silence

When we get to ancient India we see a great emphasis on the bodily, physical reality of reaching the divine through recitation, dialogue and dance. The Aryan priestly elite in the Punjab began to compile the massive anthology of Sanskrit Hymns that would become the Rig Veda (‘Knowledge in Verse’), the most important text in the vast body of India’s Scriptures. Each generation memorised these hymns and passed them on orally to their children. Even today these hymns are still recited with the precise tonal accents and inflections of the original, together with ritually prescribed gestures of the arms and fingers. Sound had always been sacred to the Aryans – it was more important to them than the ‘meaning’ of these hymns – so when they intoned and memorised them the priests felt possessed by a sacred presence.

The hymns of the Rig Veda proceed in flashes of insight, often couched in riddles and paradoxes with no clear message, but they contained the divine, which for the Aryans permeated everything. These insights however were not private revelations but given to the ‘rishi’ (seers) for the sake of the community. In India it is said that a visionary must always ‘return to the marketplace’. He or she must revert to normality and transmit these mystical insights in a form that ordinary people can understand. The ‘rishi’ had to become a poet so as to achieve a verbal formula that expressed the inexpressible in ordinary language. ‘Brahman’ was the word for this ‘verbal formula’, and it eventually came to mean the supreme reality itself, which was for the Aryans the energy that pervades the universe. The ‘rishi’ had to somehow ‘embody’ in themselves this indescribable vision of the divine in order to convey it.

The ‘Brahman’ could never be defined or described because human beings could not get outside it and see it whole. But it could be experienced intuitively in the drama of ritual, which often concluded with a ritualised competition in which the poet-priests challenged one another to find a ‘verbal formula’ to define the inexpressible ‘Brahman’. The challenger would ask a difficult question and his opponent would respond with an equally obscure query. The match continued until one of the contestants asked a question that reduced the entire company to silence. He was the victor, but not because of his brilliance and learning – rather because he had tipped the participants into grasping the inexpressible. The ensuing quiet was full, rich and light-filled because the ‘Brahman’ was present. The priests’ clever thoughts and learned phrases faded, their busy minds were stilled, they felt at one with the mysterious force that held the whole of reality together.

(To be continued next month)

Illustration: ©Duncan Harper

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