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Unity is impossible? Here’s what a 450-Year-Old, 40-part Motet Can Teach Us

A choir performs at a March 2019 St. Patrick's Day Celebration at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. (OSV News photo/Shannon Finney, Wikimedia Commons, CC-SA 4.0)

As we closed another liturgical year and crossed the threshold into Advent, our faith is directing our attention toward things eternal. Advent is a season to contemplate not just what we desire, but the fact that we are hardwired to long for something more, something truer, better, and more beautiful than what we have already experienced or known. There’s something about the human spirit that naturally reaches to the horizon, not so much to grasp it, but to stretch it even further. Our souls ache most for what we cannot achieve, for what we can only dare to hope for.

It seems to me that prime among the things we most deeply desire is unity. Not the kind of rah-rah, I’m-OK-You’re-OK, surface togetherness most people manage to muster on a daily basis. But the deep and eternal bond that exists however tenuously between us as bearers of God’s image.

This bond has never seemed so fragile. Perhaps it’s because we have overemphasized individuality and its unbridled expression, and consequently lost sight of the fact that every one of us was created for God and for others. Or maybe our uncompromising commitment to diversity has made it more difficult to trust the things we share enough to consider them a foundation worth building on. In today’s world, few agree on even the most basic values, and to make it worse, our secular culture has forgotten how to disagree constructively and without animus. Anything has the potential to be a litmus test. More than ever, our lives can be largely personalized. We hold our own opinions and preferences so dearly that few are willing to sacrifice them for the sake of unity.

To be one with God and each other is certainly among the most attractive promises of heaven. That may well be because communion is so very elusive to us here and now. Today, belonging to a tribe has supplanted, or been substituted for, our deeper desires.

I’d suggest this is true even within the Church.

Recently, the choir I’m part of sang a piece by the English Renaissance composer, Thomas Tallis. I thought “If Ye Love Me” was one of the most beautiful choral works I have ever heard, so I looked into Tallis’ other compositions. What I discovered was spellbinding, but it was also an incredibly compelling model of what eternal unity with God and each other will be.

A faithful Catholic, Tallis served as a composer in the Chapel Royal during the English Reformation. It must have been difficult for him to keep his head down and his Catholicism under the radar. Evidently, he was able to do so successfully, or he would not have continued his tenure under Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I.

In 1570, Tallis wrote an unusually complex composition. “Spem in Alium” is a 40-part motet, written for eight choirs of five voices each. Each part is unique, and there is only one voice singing it. As a lifetime musician, I’m overwhelmed at what rehearing such a piece would be like, let alone being part of a choir singing it. It’s well worth spending the nearly 10 minutes it takes to listen to it. But I wouldn’t suggest using it as background for doing anything else. The truth is that it brought me to tears.

The richness of 40 distinct voices lifts the soul upward, but also outward. Each voice has its own unrepeatable and necessary part. Lacking any one of them, the work would be impoverished. Sometimes, relatively few are singing. At others, all 40 voices are engaged and the music swells to overwhelming texture and depth. The most astonishing thing is that they are all singing one song.

One of the difficulties in fostering oneness is the challenge of envisioning it. We know that authentic unity isn’t uniformity, but we aren’t sure where the boundary between those lies. We know that genuine oneness fosters diversity, but we don’t quite understand how that can work on a practical level. Oddly, a 16th-century motet has some real insight to offer us. When the unity we long for does come, it will probably sound like this.

Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a sinner, Catholic convert, freelance writer and editor, musician, speaker, pet-aholic, wife and mom of eight grown children, loving life in New Orleans.

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