Michaelmas

[Image: Hugh Ray Easton’s windows at Grimsby Minster]

A blessed Michelmas to you all and especially to

  • Fr. Michael Peterson, O.S.B.,
  • Bishop Michael Aidan Smith, Obl.S.B., and
  • Mr. Michael Erconwald Andrews, Obl.S.B.

Today’s feast is one of those moments in the liturgical year when, in addition to meditating on the theological riches of the day, I automatically think of the symbiosis of theology and culture.  This is because Michaelmas marks the beginning of the academic year at a number of British universities (including Durham University, where I had the privilege of studying).  Michaelmas has also been associated with England’s financial and judicial calendars because it is one of England’s quarter days.  (The U.S. Supreme Court begins its term around Michaelmas as well.)

Exactly how the symbiosis of theology and culture works is a mystery or a “strange idea,” as T. S. Eliot put it.  “[W]e have to face the strange idea,” wrote T. S. Eliot in Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, “that what is part of our culture is also a part of our lived religion.”[1]

Whether these British cultural aspects of Michaelmas (academic, financial, and judicial) are sufficiently symbiotic with what Martin Thornton has called English spirituality is an interesting question.  And whether these cultural aspects form part of the Anglican patrimony would be questionable in the minds of some of us.  

But Herbert Howells is certainly part of the patrimony.  So, here is the link to a performance of his “A Sequence for St. Michael”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x0W7Xg6BJoo  The text, which is Helen Waddell’s translation of a prayer by St. Alcuin of York, is attached below as are Paul Spicer’s notes on Howells’s anthem.

Br. John-Bede Pauley, O.S.B.

Michael, Archangel / Of the King of Kings, / Give ear to our voices.

We acknowledge thee to be the Prince of the citizens of heaven: / And at thy prayer God sends / His angels unto men,

That the enemy with cunning craft shall not prevail / To do the hurt he craves
To weary men. / Yea, thou hast the dominion of perpetual Paradise, / And ever do the holy angels honour thee.

Thou wert seen in the Temple of God, / A censer of gold in thy hands, / And the smoke of it fragrant with spices / Rose up till it came before God.

Hear us, Michael, / Greatest angel, / Come down a little / From thy high seat, / To bring us the strength of God, / And the lightening of His mercy.

And do thou, Gabriel, / Lay low our foes, / And thou, Raphael, / Heal our sick, / Purge our disease, ease thou our pain, / And give us to share / In the joys of the blessed.

– Alcuin, Sequence for St Michael (translated by Helen Waddell, Medieval Latin Lyrics (New York, 1948), pp.91-3; the Latin text can be found here.)

“There is one inescapable element in Howells’s creative make-up which, however many times it is related, cannot be overlooked, and that is the loss of his son Michael at the age of nine in 1935. A Sequence for St Michael begins with two agonized cries of ‘Michael’. Many have been drawn to paint the Archangel Michael in music and on canvas, but for Howells, aided and abetted by the miraculous quality of Helen Waddell’s trans­lation of the medieval Latin of Alcuin, this was simply an opportunity for externalizing a feeling which in 1961 was still as raw as it had been when Michael had died twenty-six years earlier.

“The Sequence is a big piece effectively in three sections, the central one being a sensuous tenor solo which mirrors the ‘censer of gold’ in its sinuous musical line which seems to waft like the incense which rises from it. The heart of the poem is the image to which Howells will have felt instinctively drawn: ‘Then was there a great silence in heaven, And a thousand thousand saying ‘Glory to the Lord King’’. It is the feeling of vastness, space, silence and mystery conjured up by that image which never fails to impress. Howells’s musical response is to begin the words of those ‘thousand thousand’ like a quiet rumour, beginning very low with the basses and tenors in counterpoint and placing the sopranos high above like hovering angels. This is arch-Impressionism of a high order.”

from notes by Paul Spicer © 2005


[1] T. S. Eliot, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1949), 30.

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