In the last two days the subjects of death and euthanasia have come up frequently on Christian websites. For example, yesterday I read an article in Pravoslavie.ru from the National Review concerning a Dutch doctor who was sued for “Saying No to euthanasia”. Christian Headlines.com say that in Quebec doctors are being forced to comply with the assisted suicide (ie. euthanasia) programme even if they are morally opposed to it. For anyone who may still have doubts as to where all this “end-the-suffering-by-ending-the-sufferer” cult may lead to, I would recommend Fr. Philip LeMasters’s recent post http://blogs.ancientfaith.com/easternchristianinsights /2015/09/27/an-orthodox-christian-argument-against-physician-assisted-suicide/.
I would like to add my own protest along with other Christian voices to the gross distortion of God’s commandments that I believe “mercy”killing to be. What a gross, appalling violation against the essential sanctity of all Life! How profoundly evil, ugly and merciless such a vision of ‘mercy’ death is!
Today, rather than any debate, let the haunting beauty and profound spirituality of two Tavener classic works’ refute their arguments. Tavener’s Song for Athene and Funeral Ikos are deeply moving musical works which convey God’s grandeur and sovereignty over life and His overcoming of death. Tavener converted to Orthodox Christianity in 1977, and his compositions after that date are in his own words “icons in sound”, heavily influenced by Byzantine ecclesiastical music. He said he wanted to produce music which is “the sound of God”. In his recent book, The music of silence, Tavener said “If you listen to the music of the East, somehow the divine is already there. It is – which is a parallel with the eternal ‘I am’.” Ivan Moody, the noted Orthodox musicologist and priest, argues that Tavener’s music has “dynamic stasis” in its attempt to convey the theology and spirituality of the Orthodox Church.
Tavener’s Song for Athene is one of his best-known works, since it was sung at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, consisting of the Hebrew Alleluia (“let us praise the LORD”) sung six times as a ‘refrain’ to excerpts from the Eastern Orthodox funeral service and from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In the Byzantine tradition a continuous ison, or drone, underlies the work, adding a profound solemnity in the face of death. Mother Thekla, an Orthodox nun and Tavener’s ‘spiritual mother’ wrote the lyrics. “Let flights of angels sing thee to thy rest” from Hamlet overcomes the ugliness of death; “the Choir of Saints have found the well-spring of life and door of paradise”. “Come enjoy crowns and rewards I have prepared for you” emphasizes the final triumph of life over death. The opening of the song in Tavener’s words should be very tender, “with great inner stillness and serenity”. This corresponds to the Orthodox hesychastic tradition of stillness in prayer, whereas the climactic crescendo, conveying “the resplendent joy in the Resurrection”, the heart of the Orthodox faith, seals appropriately the end of the piece.
Tavener’s Funeral Ikos is a musical setting of words for the Orthodox Service for the Burial. The words offer great consolation, but they soberly admonish us to prepare for the gateway to Paradise as well.
Why these bitter words of the dying,
O brethren, which they utter as they go hence?
I am parted from my brethren.
All my friends do I abandon, and go hence.
But whither I go, that understand I not, neither
what shall become of me yonder; only God,
who hath summoned me knoweth.
But make commemoration of me with the song: Alleluia.
But whither now go the souls?
How dwell they now together there?
This mystery have I desired to learn,
but none can impart aright.
Do they call to mind their own people, as we do them?
Or have they forgotten all those who mourn them
and make the song Alleluia.
We go forth on the path eternal and as condemned,
with downcast faces,
present ourselves before the only God eternal.
Where then is comeliness?
Where then is wealth?
Where then is the glory of this world?
none of these things aid us,
but only to say oft the psalm: Alleluia.
If thou hast shown mercy unto man,
O man, that same mercy shall be shown thee there;
and if on an orphan thou hast shown compassion,
the same sball there deliver thee from want.
If in this life the naked thou hast clothed,
the same shall give thee shelter there, and sing the psalm:
Youth and the beauty of the body fade
at the hour of death,
and the tongue then burneth fiercely,
and the parched throat is inflamed.
The beauty of the eyes is quenched then,
the comeliness of the face all altered,
the shapeliness of the neck destroyed;
and the other parts have become numb,
nor often say: Alleluia.
With ecstasy we are inflamed
if we but hear that there is light eternal yonder;
that there is Paradise,
wherein every soul of Righteous Ones rejoiceth.
Let us all, also, enter into Christ, that all we may cry
aloud thus unto God: Alleluia.
For TAVENER’S SONG FOR ATHENE, please watch https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ma_Ouv74_8
For TAVENER’S FUNERAL IKOS, please watch https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ZRrbixpVV0
Sources for Tavener’s music: