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Music as an embodied experience of Triune symbolism and communion



This article looks at a theological application of participation and analogy in the music of French Twentieth Century composer, Olivier Messiaen, as an illustration of embodied encounter with the Trinity through music. Messiaen’s imagery emphasises relationality and diversity in unity, and the themes of creativity and eternity. Music is presented as an embodied and temporal experience with transcendent potential that is examined through the lens of Calvin’s Treatise on The Lord’s Supper – possessing the qualities of the sacrament – and applying French philosopher, Jean-Luc Marion’s concept of the saturated phenomenon to music: the idea that an artistic creation is so rich, layered and multifaceted that it keeps on giving with every encounter, mediated through the body and shaped by the listener’s lived experience. Active listening to music is a participatory and constructivist interpretive act.


This research contributes to an epistemological investigation of ways in which the Trinity may be encountered through a sacramental framing of music. Divine encounter with the Christian Triune God is both participatory and relational, and thus inherently experiential, developed through embodied ‘knowing’ and the action of loving, rather than conventionally acquired intellectual knowledge. Specifically, participation (or communion) and analogy (or symbolism) are examined in the context of Olivier Messiaen’s Quatour pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time).

Participatory modalities have the potential to be opportunities for personal communion with the Holy Trinity, and to inform practical thinking. French philosopher, Jean-Luc Marion’s philosophy of ‘saturated phenomena’ – an extension of the phenomenological idea of embodied integrated sensory, somatic, cognitive and spiritual experiences (building on Husserl, Mearleau-Ponty, Lakoff and Johnson, and Wittgenstein) – is the primary lens applied to personal encounter with the Trinity through arts. Marion advanced his theory in the context of painted artworks. This article applies the method to music, which similarly acknowledges the embedded, experienced, somatic, sensed experience as shaping the cognitive process, an interpretative lens for absorbing musical concepts. This approach acknowledges the unique individual’s experience and music’s intrinsic subjectivity. On the one hand music is more abstract even than visual art, and on the other hand, its experience is inextricably embodied. The Lord’s Supper, too, is a combination of symbols to aid memory and relationship, and participation in Divine life and the life of the Church as a whole.

This enquiry asks whether music can provide that Eucharistic opportunity to participate and actively engage with God, and conjoint participation with His people, through the sensory embodied experience of engaged listening. Marion’s saturated idea that an artwork can be so saturated with meaning that it affords both different interpretations to different people, and allows for continuous reinterpretation mediated by the changing individual, helps us think about the dynamic Triune inner life of God, and how God overcame immanence through incarnation in time and space to reveal Christian salvation. Our constant need for renewal, confession, repentance and forgiveness and reminding of the sacrifice, propitiation, and redemption through the Jesus’ death on the Cross are prompted by the symbolism of the sacrament. Can music, too, function as this reminder of our contingency and relationship with God, and bring us repeatedly into an embodied experience of Divine relationship?

Marion speaks of the rich nature of the saturated phenomenon that can ‘keep on giving’ beyond itself as a ‘gift’: a clear parallel with the ‘gift’ of revelation through Jesus Christ, and the gift of grace that allows the indwelling spirit to accept God’s inimitable sacrifice. We see a picture of a radical epistemology: a givenness that cannot be known by human rationality, effort, or capacity. The radicalism lies in the fact that knowledge of God comes through the experience and action of love rather than through traditional cognitive means.

Symbolism and experience are the modus operandi in the sacrament of The Lord’s SupperFootnote1 according to John Calvin. This article’s exploration of the uniquely Christian Triune God, attempts to bring a fresh perspective to Trinitarian communion and the body as locus theologicus.

Historically and notoriously, Barth rejected ideas such as ‘overstep’ in the imago Dei and Natural Theology, which he perceived might threaten the uniqueness and freedom of God by human projection, and vestigia Trinitatis that might miss the salvific necessity of Christ while focusing on Creation and human creativity. However, there is some utility to be found in the illuminating, glorifying aesthetics of artefacts of human creativity, and divine traces of the creation itself functioning as ‘illumination’ pointing towards the ultimate Revealer, Christ, so long as it upholds God’s proper sovereignty and human contingency. With this argument come several caveats owed to Barth, namely first, that artifice and vestigia are merely illuminating gifts, or ‘general’ revelation at best, in agreement with Barth’s insulation of the singular salvific revelation of the Trinity. Secondly, these mimetic pointers are to be held with Barth’s ‘correct’ distance, which maintains the perfection of God. It is important to understand Barth’s quarantining of Triune authority, partly in order to grasp the concept of grace, which can only be fully appreciated if the divinity and sovereignty of God is distanced from humanity, and if humanity comprehends its inadequacy, contingency and dependency.

Music as a Eucharistic embodiment

Music has the potential to function Eucharistically according to Calvin’s explication of the essential elements in The Lord’s Supper (Citation2002). Calvin describes a fundamentally twofold model of The Lord’s Supper, which needs symbol (or analogy) and participatory experience to help humans properly remember Christ’s work and participate in the inner life of the Trinity, and shared community of the Church. The argument of this research is that (certain) music, through its analogical and experiential characteristics, has this potential to operate as a sacramental framework – an environment for encounter with the Divine Trinity.

The sacramental setting is reliant on the enabling of the Holy Spirit. The Lord’s Supper is a gift, a reminder, a backward-looking and forward-looking reflection and participation. Arguably, communion is also the only way that the faithful can participate in the historic and eschatological, global (or Universal) Church.

The experiential basis of Marion’s saturated phenomena challenges Cartesian, Platonic and Aristotelian assumptions of tidy mind/body separation, and also challenges the recent empiricist, reductionist, positivist, post-Enlightenment hegemony of intellectual or hyper-cognitive human reason, and disengagement from embodied experience. The economic life of the Trinity is bounded by human realities of finitude and time in Creation, and by incarnation, suffering and bodily resurrection which are indicative of whole person and whole creation eschatological resurrection according to the Bible.

Explanatory powers

This enquiry arose from the challenge of conceptualising the intangible, invisible, ineffable, unknowable and ‘mysterious’ nature of the Christian Triune God, Who cannot be known through unaided human striving. Westphal says (2007, 265),

The metaphysics of faith will have to be a metaphysics of humility, not of hubris. It will have to know, and confess that it ‘walk[s] by faith, not by sight’. (2 Cor. 5:7)

Philosophical epistemology gives much attention to ‘explanatory power’, however exploration, especially of relations, is also an important part of knowing God, especially if it is accepted that Marion’s concept of knowledge by ‘love’ and knowing through embodied experience is the paradigm of Divine epistemology, rather than a Platonist reason-based approach.

According to Colin Gunton (Citation2005, 62–63) the world reveals the being of God through its capacity to be a framework for culture, i.e. per the varieties of common human thought, action and art that take place within it, culture indicating the world’s createdness. ‘Illumination’ (not ‘revelation’) may be a better term for the type of witness that creation, creatures, culture and creativity attest to the Triune Deity of God. In the view of Schopenhauer, Kant, Hegel (Storr Citation1992, 173; Kaminsky Citation1962, 125), Nietzsche, Freud and Jung, amongst others, the metaphysical quality of music permeating inner life also imbues it with power to create meaning and passion. Nietzsche went so far as to say that music made life worth living (Storr Citation1992, 166).

In pastoral care, art therapy, music therapy and related intersections between spiritual wellbeing and physical and mental health, it is widely recognised that art is a tool with therapeutic capacities, which can affect our embodied experience of the world: through remembering; eliciting hope; evoking and expressing emotions; by referencing symmetry, balance, and aesthetic elegance (see De Botton and Armstrong Citation2013, 44, 75). Art, including music, can that heighten sensitivity, attention to detail, and patience, develop curiosity, resilience, reason, and perspective; and facilitate reflection on natural beauty.

Saturated phenomena

Jean-Luc Marion’s concept of Saturated Phenomena articulates a concentrated phenomenology (i.e. embodied and sensed experience), in which the giving of a ‘thing’ (an object or person or idea, a phenomenon) gives far more than its appearance because it is richly imbued with meaning and potential to influence and transform objects and persons outside of itself. There is an excess of intuition over concept, in which the saturated phenomenon gives beyond the norm. This gives rise to the possibility of saturated phenomena par excellence, which Marion calls revelation (Citation2002, xxii). We think of the artwork in which the artist has represented feelings and ideas in layer after layer to create a dense, richly meaningful synthesis that will yield different perceptions according to varying perspectives and background of the viewer/listener. The artist or composer condenses a wealth of ideas into an intentionally constrained frame-space or performance interval.

Marion distinguishes between seeing and looking, just as ‘hearing’ connotes auditory sensing and ‘listening’ connotes auditory perception, cognition and the semantic mental processes that arise as a consequence. Listening is therefore part of both the semiotic and existential interpretation of music that occurs in the gap between the fleeting heard sound and the task required to infer its place in a linear structure and reflect on its remembered iteration. Indeed, the music we reflect upon in the mind is an image emancipated from sensible reality – recallable, repeatable, displaced, reconfigured, morphed, and re-contextualised.

The distinction between hearing, listening and knowledge in the abstraction of music points to the impossibility of separating embodied lived experience from interpreting and meaning making in music, and highlights the implicitly analogical nature of listening.

The painting’s frame, Marion says, isolates and delimits it from the endless visible. Framing, or bounding, creates some potential objectivity and awareness of the distinction between mimesis and its original. The frame (equivalent to musical duration in time, conventional grammars of harmonic cadence, and beginning and ending gestures) form a boundary demarcating the performed, composed event from the soundscape of the general environment. Just as the painter layers a multitude of meanings within a single frame and a non-linear confluence of temporal events, the composer works vertically and horizontally to layer musical elements in harmony, in texture (vertical) and thematic memory, phrase and rhythm (horizontally). The listener’s mind further superimposes layers recalled from memory with the current moments, eliciting relationships such as recapitulations, patterns, repetitions, modulations and temporal transformations of ideas that can only be understood in relation to the whole. Experience, culture and familiarity of the listener superimpose a dynamic perspective on music.

Music possesses transcendental qualities that create existential or mystical experience, and sensory immersion that envelops the listener. The concatenation of time is one way that the artist can make visible what no person has seen (Colossians 1:15). Music makes audible the inaudible. Hence, the invisible relations of the Triune or the unity of the Godhead evident in relations are poignant candidates for musical analogy.

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (5:19–20) promotes communal music as a constructive unifying modality for experiencing God collectively and sharing in communion in the Spirit. Songs should be sung together, presumably to galvanise the community and partake in the body.

The ineffable God requires metaphor, to be imagined, and also in order to be approached, exhorted, evaded, confronted, struggled with, and loved due to the frailty and limitations of the human mind attempting to comprehend God’s nature. Through metaphor, the vividness, intensity, and meaningfulness of ordinary experience become the basis of a passionate spirituality. The mechanism of such metaphor is bodily. It is a neural mechanism that recruits abilities to perceive, to move, to feel, to envision in the service not only of theoretical and philosophical thought, but of spiritual experience (Lakoff and Johnson Citation1999, e-Loc. 7038–7055).

In God without Being, Marion explores various ways of thinking of God as beyond being (Citation2012). The ultimate ‘icon’ is Christ himself, whom Paul describes in Colossians 1:15 as ‘the image of the invisible God.’ Marion says theology is ‘done’ in the Eucharist (Communion in The Lord’s Supper).

If the Third Person of the Trinity, the Spirit, is manifest in contemporary times amongst believers as a combination in varying degrees of kenosis, perichoresis and the indwelling Holy Spirit Who assists human Biblical interpretation, moral decisions, conscience, prayer and worship, for example, then humans are not independent from the authority of God. And the Church is Christ’s bride in the process of maturing towards Perfection. The Triune God has a live interrelationship with humans by virtue of His dwelling within the mind, heart, and Scripture that Christians access.

Calvin’s explication of the Lord’s Supper as participation and symbol, and its musical application

Calvin’s Treatise on the Sacrament of The Lord’s Supper explains the Eucharistic act in both phenomenological (embodied, somatic, sensory, experiential) and symbolic (metaphoric) terms of participation. It is an experiential and analogical (cognitive metaphoric) participation in the loving sacrifice of God’s gift and His relational nature that, if properly understood according to Calvin’s explanation, is a form of sacrament and theosis.Footnote2

Alister McGrath writes that Triunity ‘allows the individuality of the persons to be maintained, while insisting that each person shares in the life of the other two’ (McGrath Citation2001, 325). Creaturely partaking in communion is an expression of thanksgiving and acceptance of the grace of Triune action, an outward earthly sign and acknowledgement of the grace of Christ’s work completed.

According to Calvin (Citation2002, 166): Jesus Christ is the only (exclusive and complete) exclusive food by which our souls are nourished; this nourishment is distributed by the word of the Lord (which he has appointed as an instrument for that purpose); that word is also called ‘bread’ and ‘water’ and is applicable to the sacrament of The Supper, ‘by which the Lord leads us to communion with Jesus Christ’ (166). The purpose for the sacrament is to be a visible sign representing the substance of the Lord’s promises, to fortify us; to ‘sign and seal in our consciences the promises contained in the gospel concerning our being made partakers of his body and blood, and to give us certainty and assurance that therein lies our true spiritual nourishment;’ to lead us to ‘laud and magnify him more fully’ (Calvin Citation2002, 167). Music at is best, can function as this contemplative food, especially insofar as it enables meditation on the Word of God. The idea of spiritual nourishment encapsulates something that builds up, strengthens, renews, heals, feeds the soul and joins it with other souls. This paper posits that music, too, can contribute to that soul-nourishment.

Calvin uses the metaphoric language of the ‘mirror’ (cf. Foucault). Here the mirror allows the participant to contemplate the Lord Jesus Christ, crucified to remove our faults and offences, and raised again to deliver us from corruption and death, ‘restoring us to celestial immortality’ (Citation2002, 168): a meditation on Christ’s propitiation. This is linked to Paul’s notion that while we are mortally embodied, we behold the obscured image (or only partially revealed) in the mirror through the Word and Sacraments (with the assurance that eventually the vivid unrestricted view of God will be fully revealed).

Composer Messiaen’s Trinitarian Signs

What, then can Messiaen’s music tell us about the Trinity? Messiaen’s Quatour pour la Fin du Temps is concerned not so much with oneness and threeness, as it is with diversity and relationality within the Godhead. Messiaen’s earlier work, the final movement of Les Corps glorieux (1939), Le mystère de la Sainte Trinité (The Mystery of the Holy Trinity) specifically uses musical analogy to represent the threeness of the Trinitarian God. The Quartet for t. End of Time instead uses metaphoric language to immerse the listener in distinctive (diverse) roles within the Triune nature: Father (and Christ/Logos) as Creator (e.g. glorifying birdsong); Christ/Logos as Wisdom­; Spirit of the Ascended Jesus Christ; the sacrificial and salvific Son; and glorious Christ ascended. These themes coexist with musical representations of God’s nature – immortality, timelessness/eternity, and eschatological hope – that symbolise the unifying oussia (singular essence) of the Trinity. There is an established paradigm for evoking the Divine, specifically the Triune (a respectful mimesis that maintains the authority of the Son as true exegete of the Father – John 1:18; Colossians 1:15–17) through musical symbolism, for example in music of Messiaen, Bach, and Beethoven, described by Begbie and Guthrie, Chua, Bruhn, Maas, Del Nevo and Heaney.

Begbie (Citation2000, Citation1989, Citation1991) and Chua (Citation1999) primarily focus on Western tonal music because regularity of metre, and conventional tension and resolution found in functional harmony (progress-motivated, goal-oriented conventions of moving from disorder towards resolution, dissonance to consonance and established key relations) are easily relatable to God’s work of eschatological Kingdom fulfilment, restoring order from Fallen anarchy, and reconciliation. Begbie draws analogy between repetition in music and the ritually repeated event of the Eucharist, and presents localised rhythmic irregularities as an impetus for resolution. For Begbie’s focus, ‘There is hardly a phenomenon that can tell us more about time and temporality than can music.’ (Zuckerlandl Citation1956, 152; Begbie Citation2000, 4).

Human bodies and architectural acoustics of space are integral to hearing music. Begbie suggests: ‘the theological usefulness of this sonic, musical understanding of space is considerable and far-reaching. The co-presence of the Son of God and humanity in Christ obviously comes to mind, as does the way we conceive the Trinity’ (Begbie Citation2000, 111).

The somatic body senses sound before it can be processed cognitively and semantically, and there are the visceral, palpable aspects of resonances vibrating and responding to frequencies in the body, such as the long bones, cavities of the lungs. In other words, sound is felt and heard through the body. This allows music to leverage an emotional response in a different way than language alone. Shepherd and Wicke (Citation1997) maintain that there has been too little attention given to this distinctiveness of bodily mediation of sound in music, perhaps the problem of the hegemony of language (Begbie Citation2000, 27).

The Quatour pour la Fin du Temps focuses on the apocalyptic vision from the Revelation to John. As of all apocalyptic Biblical books (e.g. Isaiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Revelation), the literary genre is characterised by vivid and hyperbolic, saturated language, radiance of riches, colours, jewels, exotic creatures, cosmic battles, and surreal concomitances, because the prophecy related exceeds any reality experienced by its human scribe. It is generally agreed that apocalyptic language is highly symbolic and not to be interpreted literally. Thus, Messiaen is embedding symbols of symbols in a more abstract form than its linguistic inspiration. Evoking ‘bedazzlement’, ‘glory’, depicting the invisible and impossible, and an appropriate awesome contemplation, are consistent with Messiaen’s mystic surrealism and expression of faith that coexists with his organisational precision.

Messiaen’s Quatour pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the end of time)

A brief context

The first performance of Messiaen’s quartet (for violin, piano, clarinet and cello) took place in the Stalag VIIIA prisoner of war camp in Görlitz, Germany (now Zgorzelec, Poland) on 15 January 1941. Messiaen stated to a friend (Goléa Citation1960, 67) that he wrote the quartet not to express the oppressive, empty existence of the camp, but to escape and negate it with a fierce and otherworldly celebration. The unfamiliar rhythmic modes express the alterity of holiness and the eschatological Kingdom, not the alienation of 1,600,000 prisoners engulfed in wartime confinement. For Messiaen, in his camp of around 30,000 prisoners, this work encapsulated mental freedom.

Messiaen’s famous work ‘springs from an effulgence of light amidst darkness, an eruption of birdsong out of absolute silence’ (Burton Citation2016, 43) in which the abyss is Time, with its weariness and gloom, with heteroclitic, improvisational bricolage characterising its assembly (which is not to imply lack of unity of structure and thematic material of the whole). Indeed, it could be said that Messiaen’s (rhythmic and harmonic) modal hallmarks and penchant for birdsong are traits that permeate nearly all his works.

Visions of the Apocalypse

Messiaen, in a verbal preface to the first performance of the Quatour pour la fin du temps in Paris, said he was directly inspired by chapter 10 of the Book of Revelation, in which the prophesy was given to the Apostle St. John, whom Jesus loved (the author of the fourth Gospel). The mighty angel clothed in a cloud, shrouded in a rainbow, with a face as if it were in the sun, and one foot on each the sea and the land (astride all creation) with feet as pillars of fire, opens the small book to the sound of seven thunders reverberating around him.

The Biblical scholar will be familiar with references to the Holy number of seven representing the perfection of God. The angel swearsFootnote3 by him who lives forever, who created heaven and its creatures, and the earth and its creatures, and the sea and its creatures, that there should be time no longer (Burton Citation2016, 45).

Burton suggests that Messiaen intentionally prefers the translation, like French theologian Claudel in his commentaries of that time, which renders the Latin quia tempus amplius non erit as the French il n’y aurait plus de temps, i.e. [he swears] ‘that there would be no more time’, over the most widely used French translation il n’y aura plu délai, meaning ‘there shall be no more delay’. Messiaen also told his first audience at Stalag VIIIA, that the phrase pour la fin du temps has nothing to do with the end of time in captivity, but rather it ‘designates nothing less than “the end of notions of past and future,” in other words for the beginning of eternity’ (Goléa Citation1960, 64; Burton Citation2016, 46).

These are critical caveats in the interpretation of Messiaen’s music, especially in the context of such a tumultuous period in history that saw the world economic crisis precipitated by the 1929 Wall Street crash, the rise of Nazism in Germany, a decade of wars and threats of war (Mark 13:7) in China, Spain, Central and Western Europe, the Soviet Union in summer of 1941 (Burton Citation2016, 46).

Since the C20th’s litany of natural and man-made disasters including ‘acts of God’, the Blitzkrieg and Shoah, Dresden, Hiroshima, hurricanes, tsunamis, more recently Nine-Eleven, global warming, and war in the Middle East, the term ‘Apocalypse’ has undergone a semantic devaluation and distortion in quotidian language, such that it is now synonymous with ‘catastrophe’. Derived from the Greek apokalupsis – with the root apokaluptein to reveal, to discover; apo [negative] kaluptein to cover, to hide – connotes a combination of revealing, uncovering, opening and disclosing. The opening of the book with the seven seals is in this sense symbolic of the whole of the Book of Revelation. The Christian message is one of hope, justice, restoration, renewal, perfection, and reunion – the end of suffering, sin, Fallen existence, and the end of time – Eternity: ‘He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away’ (See also Revelation 21:4 or Isaiah describing the new Jerusalem, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband) and (Revelation 21:2) declaring a plan ‘to unite all things [in Christ], things in heaven and things on earth’ (See also Ephesians 1:7–10 and Colossians 1:15–20).

Messiaen’s Quatour pour la fin du temps is concerned with expectation, hope and glory. And thus, the ambiguous use of ‘pour’ or ‘for’ in the title is definitely not a quartet ‘for’, in the sense of ‘in memorial for’, the end of time: rather, it is a quartet in anticipation of an event that is to come. In a musical sense, there is an allusion to the disintegration of conventional rhythm, metre, time, or the symbolical end of music itself. Though highly rhythmic (at times), the patterns of off-beat and additive metres disorient the listener from a regular pulse, whilst the birdsong passages are sufficiently complex as to sound unmetered. Despite representing the glory of Creation, the pinnacle of God’s creaturely song-makers, the birds also embody the chaotic and unruly characteristics of nature, untamed and free. At still other times, long pauses and sustained notes create a stasis and poetically spacious, reflective atmosphere, which is ‘closer to infinity’ (Burton Citation2016, 53).

Messiaen’s tension between musical time (rhythm) and the notion of Eternity sharpened and became central to his musical creativity. According to Messiaen, the quartet is born of this rift: between the timeless and time (Burton Citation2016, 52–54). Messiaen had a clear theomusical project (Burton Citation2016, 54)Footnote4 concentrated on Eternity, or the desire for Eternity (Massin Citation1989, 14).

Numerical symbolism in the book of revelation

Like other books belonging to the ‘apocalyptic’ genre in the Bible, Revelation is filled with symbolism including sacred geometry, numerical symbolism and numbers of significance in the Judaic Kabbalah.

Seven is widely considered to be a sacred number, representative of God’s perfection, holiness and completeness. Seven is so pervasive in Revelation that this symbolism is unquestionably intentional and meaningful. There are seven notes in the conventional musical scale, seven colours in the rainbow, seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, seven petitions in the Lord’s Prayer, seven woes to the Scribes and the Pharisees, thus seven represents perfection but twelve represents plenitude or ‘all’ – the twelve tribes, twelve apostles – the Gospel for all nations and to all the ends of the earth.

Yet, Messiaen’s quartet has eight movements. In his conversation with Rischin (Citation2003, 129), Messiaen describes the Sabbath on the seventh day marking sanctification and repose that extends into Eternity. According to his interpretation, the eighth day marks eternal light and peace. This concurs with the celestial and ethereal colour of the eighth movement and the delicate pinnacle of its climax, which fades in volume and register as if into ‘forever’. Claudel states that ‘in the Sibylline Books the mystic number of Christ is 888, in other words a superabundant perfection, the triumph of even numbers, that figure thrice repeated that mathematicians have adopted as the symbol of the Infinite’ (Claudel Citation1952, 345). After the Sabbath comes the definitive Amen, and that for Messiaen is the complete abolition of time.


On many levels, the form and content of the Book of Revelation is the mirror-image of the Book of Genesis, marking the restoration of the perfection and promises and order set out in Genesis according to God’s intentions. ‘Genesis’ means beginnings and ‘Revelation’ is from the Greek word apokalupsis, literally meaning an unveiling of something previously hidden. Thus, Revelation is the book of the unveiling of the world’s future that was established in Genesis. Genesis describes a sinless world in the Garden of Eden, made for humankind and placed under his care. The earth will be restored to its original perfection and then continue forever. Sin and the curse will be removed and death will be no more. There is a direct correlation between the music of the two ‘praise’ movements (of the resurrection and ascension of Christ) and an overall contrast between chaos towards order and eternity.

Messiaen’s time and eternity

Begbie claims that theologians examine the root of some of the most intractable problems in relation to time, and especially in relation to Divine Eternity (Begbie Citation2000, 30). For Pannenberg especially, in the C20th, this was one of his main projects.

Music, although not providing a magic wand to dispel all the mists of confusion, can offer considerable assistance in the process of exploring temporality, as well as clarifying, interpreting and re-conceptualising its character […] Music is “lived through” in a time-intensive involvement with time-embedded realities. (Begbie Citation2000, 30)

Kant proposes that the way that time and temporal relations appear to the beholder is influenced by the way in which the mind organises manifold sensed data (Begbie Citation2000, 33). Others construe time as a social construct. Music may be considered ‘time out’, an important idea to the theological project by suggesting a timeless condition, an appeal to ‘music’s extreme immateriality’ (Begbie Citation2000, 34) or ephemerality and memory-contingent momentary existence.

Messiaen’s music fits outside that harmonic and rhythmic paradigm of tension and resolution found in conventional Western tonal music, however the theme of eschatological hope is paramount to Messiaen’s hope towards future Eternity in the new celestial city and unification with God in His fullness. The Christian will recognise the paradox first, that time is a reality of God’s Creation, and secondly, that time is part of God’s good ordering of the world (Begbie Citation2000, 71).

The notion of locating time in the present mind (or memory) originated with Augustine who famously questioned the substantiality of time (quid est ergo tempus?) (Citation1963, XI: 14,17) and the Neoplatonists, for whom time was clearly inferior to Eternity. According to Augustine, time is the transient, temporal order that never stands still, with a distinct experience of past, present and future, in comparison with Eternity, which is free from that dislocation. Paul Ricœur suggests that Augustine’s distentio animi (Citation1963 XI: 26.33; XI:29.39) distention of the mind – the ‘stretching out of the mind’ in relation to the past and the future extends to Husserl, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty (Ricœur Citation1995, 16), each of whom made a critical contribution to the phenomenological movement of which Jean-Luc Marion is an heir, and in which the participatory, embodied and ‘lived experience’ of listening to music is situated. Memory and future (or hope) are vital components of participatory listening.

Redeeming some good for temporality in the face of its critics and inferiority to Eternity, Augustine in De Musica, proposes that audible music makes accessible to the ear proportions and ‘numbers’ that are intrinsic in the good forms of the universe and God’s ordering.

Rowan Williams contends that music can function as a “moral event:” it can remind us that we are not in control of the world, that we do not have the overview, that we are in the narrative of the world’s history and never above it. (Begbie Citation2000, 89)

The ephemerality of music is a good reminder of the brevity of life: the ‘fleeting shadow’ (Job 14:22); that we will ‘wither away like grass’ (Psalm 102:11); sustained by God (Psalm 39:5; 39:11; 94:11; 144:4); ‘yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapour that appears for a little while and then vanishes away’ (James 4:14). Overall, music shows that potential fruitfulness and meaning can be found in transience (Begbie Citation2000, 92). Karl Barth asserts that finitude and bounded duration is an expression of Triune generosity, grace and creativity (Barth Citation1960, III/2: 553–572).

Messiaen suspends the listener in the patient phase of expectation. ‘In the New Testament, patience is often associated with growth in steadfastness and faith through perseverance in the midst of opposition’ (Begbie Citation2000, 104) or suffering (Hebrews 11) (Falkenroth and Brown Citation1978, 764–776) and God’s passion for the world’s salvation (2 Peter 3:9; Romans 2:4; 3:25) and patience is an indicator of authentic love (1 Corinthinans 13:4).

Christian composer, John Tavener states: ‘The whole purpose of sacred music must be to lead us to the threshold of prayer or to the threshold of a true encounter with the living God’ (Haydon Citation1995, 209).

Time and communion

For Begbie and Marion, there is a further link between memory scanning to and fro, musical temporality, and liturgical repetition, and more particularly, in Eucharistic repetition (Begbie Citation2000, 165).

To partake of Christ (a similar use of the word ‘participation’ as found in Cyril of Alexandria – or engage something outside of oneself, to take on its character without taking on its essence) implies the transformation and reshaping of our created temporality. Through the repeated opportunity of Eucharistic participation, the believer partakes in Christ’s coherent past, present and future. Furthermore, the Lord’s Supper occurs in the temporal and geographical unity of the whole Church, i.e. the Church proper, across all time and space unified by participation in the body of Christ.

Jean-Luc Marion is especially concerned with this consciousness of the Church (Marion Citation2012), which he maintains could easily fall into the trapping of primacy of the present in which the sole horizon of the Eucharistic gift is perceived as those presently partaking in the sacrament, without adequate regard for the community’s past and future, who also constitute the Church.

Glory and creation, chaos towards order

Musically, disorder (including naturalness in the Fallen world) stands in contrast with God’s perfected order of the new Kingdom, which restores the created perfection of the Garden of Eden before Sin existed, i.e. the ecology of harmonious and peaceful interaction and loving relationships. Disorderliness is characterised by unpredictability, changing metres, irregular and additive rhythm, startling and violent accented intrusions, clanging dissonances and beautiful but wild birds, in contrast to metrically regular and synchronous predictable, anticipatable patterns or serene heavenly sonorities created by ethereal tone colours. Messiaen’s world of contrasts is a microcosm of the outsider to insider trajectory that music’s transcendent qualities might hope to inspire in the listener.


Messiaen’s music is an exemplar for exploring the Trinity experientially and symbolically: a richly layered tapestry of meanings that through the balance of abstraction, diaphanous detail, alongside particular structural symbols, demonstrates the fruitfulness of music as a modality for individual and collective participatory experience. The communal participatory experience of active listening (reminiscent of the sacrament for the Church) and symbolic musical language that demands hermeneutical interpretation, repeatedly and from different standpoints, echoes both the Eucharistic and symbolic essentials of Calvin’s Treatise on the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and the inexhaustible giving of Marion’s saturated phenomenon. It encapsulates analogies to the Creator and Creature relationship, ascendance and transcendence, themes of Eternity and time that signify the Immanent and Economic intrusion, an overall chaos to concordance momentum that mirrors the Trinitarian ordering of the Fallen Creation from chaos, sin, and dystopia (arrhythmic birds, additive metres) towards the Christian hope in eschatological perfection, restoration, reconciliation of the coming Kingdom, and anticipation of the full revelation of the Mystery and human reunification dwelling with God, through the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. The abstraction in music respects a balance between phenomenological exploration and the present Mystery, showing the potential for music and creaturely vestiges’ application to God’s glorification, without compromising the salvific centrality of Christ, the Logos of the Gospel.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.

Notes on contributor

Dr Kirsty Beilharz is a composer, researcher and author. She is a Research Associate at The University of Notre Dame Australia, Institute for Ethics & Society working on healthcare ethics in collaboration with St. Vincent's Health Network (investigating spiritual care in hospitals). She is also a conjoint academic at the University of New South Wales Faculty of Medicine, and research professional at Kolling Institute of Research, University of Sydney. Previously, she researched music engagement in palliative care and dementia at HammondCare, and is the author of ‘Music Remembers Me: Connection and Wellbeing in Dementia’ (HammondCare Media, 2017), and was a 2018 Senior Creative Fellow at Anglican Deaconess Ministries. Kirsty was a Visiting Fellow at the University of Edinburgh U.K., Professor of Music and Interaction Design at the University of Technology, Sydney and Digital Media program director at the University of Sydney. Kirsty studied music performance and composition at the University of Sydney (BMus Hons & PhD) and postdoctoral studies at the University of York. She is currently completing a Ph.D in Trinitarian theology at Sydney College of Divinity. Her research has been funded by Australian Research Council grants and Kirsty's compositions have been performed internationally.


1 The Lord’s Supper is synonymous with Communion (in the 39 articles of the 1662 Anglican Prayer Book) or the Eucharist (especially in Roman Catholicism), alluding to the idea of ‘participation’, involvement, and sharing. John Calvin uses ‘The Lord’s Supper’ in his Treatise on the Sacraments.

2 Theosis is an idea frequently found in Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions more than the Reformed lexicon. Calvin’s experiential notion of sacrament is enabled by the sanctifying sacrifice of Christ Jesus.

3 There are some differences in exegesis here. The French translation from Latin uses ‘swears’ as did Messiaen.

4 Citing an idea from Catholic poet, Patrice de la Tour du Pin (1911–1975) who defined la théopoétique as a voluntary exercise of poetry in the service of God by concentrating all the resources around the relationship to God, rather than around the focus on self.


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