When I heard about the classical composer John Tavener’s death on November 12, I felt like someone who had once quarreled bitterly with a friend, then lost touch with him for years. Suddenly, the news comes that this friend has passed away, before you could reconnect and reconcile.
I never met Sir John Tavener, knowing him only through recordings and through his public statements. But his music changed my life profoundly – though we also had our “falling out.”
In retrospect, I wish we hadn’t. John Tavener’s legacy is complicated, but I know God used his artistry for good.
Tavener was a convert to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and much of his music was inseparable from his faith. After my own Christian conversion from atheism, I discovered Eastern Christianity – the tradition I now practice, as a Byzantine Catholic – largely through Tavener’s art.
The influence goes further. John Tavener’s music helped me to understand the theological meaning of beauty. And his choral setting of the “Akathist of Thanksgiving,” an important Russian Orthodox text, has accompanied me through times of suffering.
Tavener’s “Akathist of Thanksgiving” is not just beautiful music, but a lesson in gratitude and sacrifice. The text, ascribed to a priest who perished in Stalin’s “Gulag Archipelago,” was set to music by a man with a serious, incurable disease. Yet the entire work has one theme: “Glory to God for all things!”
Beauty can have a transcendent meaning. Suffering can be spiritually fruitful. I learned these lessons, in part, from John Tavener’s music.
Although he has gone from among us, I hope I will someday be able to thank the composer personally – for the ways in which he served God through music, and helped me to know Christ better.
But if I do someday meet John Tavener, on that day I will also owe him an apology.
While I never rejected his music, I lost interest in it for a long period, because of my own harsh and rash judgments about his religious views and motivations. In retrospect, I wish I had judged his actions and words more charitably.
However, this is not just a personal matter between me and an artist who inspired – and frustrated – me. My “quarrel” with Tavener stems from opinions he espoused more or less openly, over many years, about the nature of faith and religious truth.
My aim is not to dredge up controversy about the dead. John Tavener was a great Christian artist, and many of his works should be part of our cultural canon. But his legacy has difficulties, too.
To “appreciate” something is to judge its true worth. If we care about Tavener’s place in the Christian culture of the future, we must be candid about the problematic aspects of his work and worldview.
Two clarifications are in order. First: my issues with Tavener do not revolve around typical “Catholic vs. Eastern Orthodox” arguments.
Though he made some unfair statements about the Catholic Church, he was not a polemical thinker, and wrote some clearly Catholic-friendly music. I suspect he was united to the Catholic Church by that “unconscious desire and longing” mentioned by Pius XII in “Mystici Corporis Christi.”
Secondly: I do not think it was wrong, strictly speaking, for Tavener to use elements of the non-Christian religions – like Hinduism and Islam – in his later compositions. Even the Catholic Church “rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions” (Nostra Aetate 2).
The problem is not with Tavener’s use of non-Christian prayers and symbols, as such. The problem lies, rather, with his approach to these elements, and his reasons for using them as he did.
This was the heart of my “quarrel” with Tavener, and still causes me to look skeptically on some – though certainly not all – of his music.
John Tavener lived and died as an Eastern Orthodox Christian. But he also held a pluralistic view of religious truth – seeing Christianity as one of many equally valid “paths to God,” alongside other traditions.
A major influence on Tavener, in this regard, was the Swiss Sufi Muslim convert Frithjof Schuon (1907-1998) – who taught that all major religions, though outwardly different, were symbolic vehicles for the same truth about God. This teaching is sometimes called “Perennialism” or the “Traditionalist School.”
Perennialism is not a form of religious syncretism: each major religion is considered “absolutely true” for its own followers, who are taught to practice their tradition strictly. But from the Perennialist perspective, no single religion can be “definitive,” in the sense of correcting or completing the others.
Tavener held this position, and presented it in works like “The Veil of the Temple” (2001) – a seven-hour epic, involving six world religions. The composer called it his most important work, saying it was meant to show that “all religions are in the transcendent way inwardly united beneath their outward form.”
Tavener also said, in a 2002 book endorsement: “One could say that my works of the last five years or more have been dedicated to, and inspired by, the very same truths expounded by Frithjof Schuon.”
None of this means that John Tavener left Eastern Orthodoxy, or ceased to believe the Nicene Creed. Tavener professed faith in Jesus Christ – and the Lord alone is his judge. But his Perennialism, as a philosophy, must be judged incompatible with Christianity.
In his effort to validate all religions, the “Christian Perennialist” loses the literal sense of Scripture and the original meaning of Church teachings. He is forced into absurd statements: that Hindu avatars like Krishna are Jesus in another form, or that the Qur’an is divine revelation just like the Bible.
Catholics may certainly hope, and even believe, that God’s grace is mysteriously at work among those who do not explicitly believe in Christ. I strongly hope and believe this myself. I also believe that some Christians, if they are mature in their faith, can grow spiritually by studying other traditions in depth.
But Christianity and Perennialism cannot both be true. If the Protagonist of the Four Gospels founded a Church, with a mandate to baptize and teach all nations, then all spiritual traditions are not “equally valid” and “transcendently one.” On this point, John Tavener was mistaken.
Yet I was wrong, too: When I learned about Tavener’s Perennialism, I was quick to condemn him, and assume he had left the faith. This was unfair and unfounded. Objectively, Perennialism and Christianity are incompatible; but John Tavener, in his own mind, did not intend to abandon Christianity.
So I will remember Tavener, above all, as a man who served God through music. Jesus Christ gave him an extraordinary talent, which he used to magnify the Lord in the field of culture. His mistakes, theological or artistic, do not outweigh this fact.
I will also remember him for bringing beauty out of suffering. I alluded earlier to Tavener’s incurable illness – Marfan syndrome, a connective tissue disorder that brought him close to death many times before his passing at age 69.
His website notes that “health, or rather the lack of it, has been a constant factor in Tavener’s life.” Evidently, the threat of death spurred him to focus – personally and musically – on the transcendent and eternal. He did not have the luxury of assuming he would be long for this world.
Really, though, none of us have that luxury. We are all just as frail and mortal as John Tavener. If we paid more mind to that fact, we might get serious about serving God with every moment we still have.
The awareness of mortality is a great weapon in our spiritual arsenal. There is a medieval English text, the anonymous “Epistle of Prayer,” in which a spiritual director gives this advice to a man seeking help with distractions in prayer:
“Make quite sure that you are certain that you will die by the time [your prayer] is ended, that you will finish before your prayer does … There is not a man alive today who would dare deny its possibility, to say you would necessarily live longer than your prayer.”
“Almost certainly you will live longer than your prayer,” the director notes. “But it is wrong to bank on it, and a mistake to promise it to yourself.”
Given his wide reading, Tavener may have known the “Epistle of Prayer.” His life, at any rate, reflects its teaching. We all live “in darkness and the shadow of death” (Luke 1:79) – and we must serve God with the time we have, not knowing if that is five years or five minutes.
So this is how I will remember Sir John Tavener: as a man who faced death courageously, confident in Christ’s resurrection and determined to manifest God’s beauty.
And this is how I will appreciate his music now. I only wish I had regained this perspective during his life. May his memory be eternal.
“With the saints give rest, O Christ, to the soul of Thy servant, where sickness and sorrow are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.”
image: Devlin Crow/Wikimedia Commons