The eternal, true, and unchanging
First published in the Christian Science Sentinel
Olivier Messiaen, a French religious composer whose organ pieces are often played in churches of all denominations, once wrote a "Quartet for the End of Time."
He was inspired by Revelation, Chapter 10, which tells of an angel with a face like the sun and a rainbow on his head, who carried the message that there should be time no longer. In his quartet, Messiaen suggested musically that audiences could experience some of the elements of eternity in the present. Two sections in particular, in praise of Jesus, are some of the most moving and tranquil music I am aware of.
What is surprising is to learn of the circumstances under which Messiaen composed the quartet. The year was 1940. And Messiaen was in a Nazi internment camp. The four instruments he used were those available in the camp. Perhaps even more surprising, the Nazi commandant of the camp gave permission for the work to be performed there.
A few years later, during the same trying period of history, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Protestant pastor and professor, was imprisoned in a Nazi stalag in Berlin because of his suspected involvement in a plot to overthrow Hitler. Bonhoeffer used his time to think about the future of his church, which he felt had not responded as it should have to the trials it had been under. He wrote to fellow pastors and professors about ways in which the church might be reformed after the war.
Messiaen and Bonhoeffer had something in common. They shared an intense religious faith that allowed them to center their creative thinking under circumstances we hope we'll never have to endure. It occurs to me how thankful we can be for examples like theirs - and how important it is to acknowledge what it was that made them carry on.
The lives of these two men bring to mind a well-loved Bible verse: "Great peace have they which love thy law: and nothing shall offend them" (Ps. 119:165). I can't speak for them, but I'd venture to suggest that by catching even a glimpse of what the eternal is - the unchanging love of God, the continuity of life for all God's children, the spiritual nature of reality - these men were able to rise above the awful conditions in which they found themselves.
I have found in my own life that the understanding, even to a small extent, that there is a spiritual reality - a law of God - that cannot be undone by any human act, or act of nature, provides a bulwark against which to lean. As Mary Baker Eddy wrote in Science and Health, "Undisturbed amid the jarring testimony of the material senses, Science, still enthroned, is unfolding to mortals the immutable, harmonious, divine Principle, - is unfolding Life and the universe, ever present and eternal" (page 306).
Those who remember the name of Bonhoeffer will probably know that he was eventually hanged, just days before the end of World War II. But history shows that he maintained his hope and his belief that life could not be extinguished - that it is indeed "ever present and eternal." As a result, he was a comfort to the other prisoners after some of the terrifying air raids on Berlin toward the end of the war.
A British spy, who had also been a prisoner throughout the war, wrote of Bonhoeffer: "He always seemed to diffuse an atmosphere of happiness, of joy in every smallest event in life, and a deep gratitude for the mere fact that he was alive.... He was one of the very few men I have ever met to whom his God was real and ever close to him" (A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, edited by Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson).
In the world today, violence continues to lead to more violence. Natural disasters wreak havoc, although recent rescue efforts have shown how generous and loving much of humankind wants to be. The fact is that human existence has never been free of problems and challenges. But whether as individuals or as a whole society, I believe people can begin the process of healing by seeking out what is eternal and true and unchanging. They can find protection and comfort in God and His attributes. It's on this bedrock foundation that we can carry on with our own work, and at the same time make a positive contribution to the world's mental atmosphere.