There are certain works of art that have a lifetime impact on you. At least for me. They literally shape who you are. Reading Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Madeline L’Engle as a kid could qualify. Reading Plato in high school was significant for me (if that qualifies as art). One of the most epic encounters with a work of art occurred for me back in 1986, in my freshman year as an undergrad. I was taking a class on “aesthetics,” which refers to the principles of beauty. But the focus of the class was really the philosophy of art. This class had a far greater impact on me than most in my undergrad years, but on top of that, there was this one musical composition in that class that will be with me forever.
My zealous professor stands before us one day and says he’s going to let us experience the power of variation, the power of musical narrative. He takes this vinyl album from its sleeve (remember those?) places it on his record player, and I heard for the first time Felix Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides Overture,” or as it is also known, “Fingal’s Cave.”
To understand this music, you must first understand its inspiration. It was 1829, and Mendelssohn was with a friend touring by boat the Scottish Islands known as the Hebrides. The British Isles are often stormy, and this day was no exception. People aboard the paddle steamer were vomiting left and right, including Mendelssohn himself. But the main attraction of this tour was Fingal’s Cave, and despite the storm, he and his friend got into a much smaller boat to enter and explore it.
Fingal’s Cave is a 227-foot basalt sea cavern on the Hebrides island of Staffa. This sea cave has a color and geological symmetry unmatched in any other natural phenomena. Sir Walter Scott described it as, “one of the most extraordinary places I ever beheld. It exceeded, in my mind, every description I had heard of it–composed entirely of basaltic pillars as high as the roof of a cathedral, and running deep into the rock, eternally swept by a deep and swelling sea, and paved, as it were, with ruddy marble–it baffles all description.”
This is the natural wonder Mendelssohn, sick as a dog, entered with his little boat on that stormy day. And, amidst the visual wonder, he also experienced the wonder of its sounds. The acoustics of this cathedral with the violent waves crashing up and down and in and out of the cavern were, as Scott found, beyond logical description. But, as sick as he was, and as terrified as he was, Mendelssohn was able to describe it–in music.
So, here am I, hearing my professor tell me this tale, and then I heard the notes of Mendelssohn’s musical description. The orchestral strings were at once ominous, relentless, and later soared into the echo of seagulls. The force of the orchestra rose and fell like a wave, rolling, fierce, reaching a terrifying height, then at once subsiding into a deep calm. The incessant crescendo and decrescendo were beyond marvelous. Then, there was a still in the waters. And finally, it ended with a musical climax I have never heard duplicated. I was fully immersed by the wonder of it all. I was exhausted. I was in that little boat myself, carried by the power of nature, left for dead by its terrible beauty.
In the hindsight of years of Scriptural study, the metaphor for God and his sovereign power in nature have not been lost on me through that aesthetic experience. One thinker we studied in that class was Edmund Burke. He spoke about an experience in nature, like standing before a vast mountain range, where you encounter something so simultaneously beautiful and yet so beyond you that you are left in complete astonishment and awe. Burke said that “the passion caused by the great and sublime in nature is astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other.” You are so overwhelmed that you literally feel a dread for your own existence, but so exhilarated that you are also fully alive, and your focus can find no other object to behold.
This is the experience I want to have with our Almighty God. In nature. In art. In prayer. In worship. He should terrify me with his beauty, with his utter glory. I should be transfixed by his omnipresent love, in awe of his sublime power. Since experiencing that one work of art, I now see God in nature in a profound, new way. And, if I’m lucky, I hope to further experience (and by God’s grace, produce) works of art that, like Mendelssohn’s, carry me beyond my visceral sense of self into the presence of this Almighty Creator.
(Note: if you want to hear the piece for yourself, it’s out there for only 99 cents. I couldn’t find a decent rendition on Itunes that wasn’t attached to a whole album, but I did find a few on Rhapsody, and I’m sure it’s to be found elsewhere. The full title is “The Hebrides Overture, ‘Fingal’s Cave’ Op. 26” by Felix Mendelssohn.)
About John Michalak
An author, speaker, musician, and minister, John Michalak has spent more than 20 years equipping others in the areas of life-change and personal relationship. John’s inspirational new book, 365 Devotions To Embrace What Matters Most is now available from Zondervan publishing.
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