Posted by: Harold Knight | 04/22/2011

The hands that hold

Christians who follow the Roman Rite as interpreted in the Sarum Practice at Salisbury Cathedral in the 12th Century, then the English Reformation, then the Oxford Movement of the 19th century, then the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church—do strange things on Maundy Thursday. After the Eucharist, and—while someone reads Psalm 22 aloud (“My God, my god, why have you forsaken me”)—they ceremonially “Strip the Altar,” carrying everything in the sanctuary that isn’t bolted down out in solemn procession and removing the Reserved Sacrament to indicate that Jesus is in the tomb, so the church is starkly empty. All this in preparation for the bleakness of Good Friday.

I went to the Maundy Thursday service at the big beautiful Episcopal Church just over the city line north of the Park Cities and back into Dallas. Most of the members, I think, live in the Park Cities. I suppose when they bought the land it was so far north of the main city of Dallas that it was cheap—and it was a huge parcel of land they could buy close to the Park Cities. That’s a guess. I’m not a Park Cities-type—and I’m not being judgmental. I’m just not. That’s all.

Do we love anything that is not beautiful? What is the difference between beauty and a beautiful thing? What is it that attaches our affections to things that we love? (1).

As a graduate student I studied St. Augustine’s De Musica, but I didn’t know he wrote about aesthetics in the Confessions. I am not (as far as I know) of the Augustinian bent in philosophy or theology. I found Knowles’ article researching something else, and was drawn to it out of curiosity.

Music students learn Augustine’s definition of music as “the science of measuring well.” Knowles explains that we should

not think of Augustine’s “measuring well” as a static or mechanical thing. Augustine, like all true mathematicians, understood “measuring” to be a deeply aesthetic and dynamic process. He concluded his dialog on the initial definition: “Therefore we can take it as proven that the ‘science of measuring’ is the science of moving well, and by that we mean that this motion is to be sought for itself, and thus it is, in itself, to be desired” (De Musica. 1.2.3) (2).

This is dense thought (both Augustine’s and Knowles’), but I have to quote one more snippet of Knowles. He says this “moving well” comes from

harmonious relationship, or in Augustine’s Pythagorean vocabulary, numerose. . .  In Pythagorean mathematics, numbers are not simple quantitative signifiers . . . but carriers of meaning and relationship. . .  Augustine’s concept of mathematics and ratio is not the simplistic counting of a mere arithmetic, but a structured analogy of reality expressed through quantitative thought (3).

I knew all of this at one time—I did pass my PhD exams in music theory, after all—but this morning it has a meaning I would never have guessed.

I approached the Maundy Thursday service with a combination of trepidation and consternation. It’s a big church where I know exactly four people, and I’m basically one of Garrison Keillor’s “shy persons.” Besides, I really—my friends doubt this—don’t believe anything that’s said in church. To solve the first problem, I went to the dinner before the service and made myself chat with the strangers at my table—pleasant. But I saw none of them in the congregation later. Did I say big church?

The consternation I didn’t solve. I just went. And I still (especially this morning in retrospect) don’t comprehend why I keep showing up there. My God (if there is a God) has forsaken me. I say that not as the drama queen I tend to be, but with a sorrow and agony I can scarcely bear. Participating in the liturgical life of that church does not make it easier.

As a matter of fact, it makes it more difficult because I long ago accepted the idea that music (and other arts—beautiful things) is “a structured analogy of reality expressed through quantitative thought.” Or, as the professor in a class I once took said, paraphrasing Susanne Langer, “Music expresses to the mind the way emotions feel to the body.” It’s an analogy of the highest order (I’ll explain it some other time, but music does not express emotion).

That ceremony last night expresses to my mind some analogy to the way my emotions feel. But it’s more complex, more unnerving, more confusing than that because the liturgy is music, motion, ceremony, and intellectuality all at the same time. It’s impossible. It’s ooey-gooey messy, and I don’t like it. And I don’t like sentimental explanations of what happens that confuse feeling and thought, explaining such things as

. . . spiritual intellect dwells in the heart. . . Unlike reason. . . the spiritual intellect comprehends reality directly. Self-awareness and the conscience dwell in the heart. . . The heart has unfathomable depths. The mystery of the union between the divine and the human is achieved and perfected in it. Emotions often precede understanding. We can say, therefore, that one feels worship before understanding it (4).

So why do I read such stuff? I want (am desperate?) to figure out what happens to me—to anyone—participating in those ceremonies. From this vantage point, it is incomprehensible. I’d like to be one of those people who can reject all of it out of hand—or one of those people who can believe it without questions.

Wilfred Owen described poetically the veneration of the cross in such a service (not likely to happen in the Park Cities). He wrote,

Between the brown hands of a server-lad
The silver cross was offered to be kissed.
The men came up, lugubrious, but not sad,
And knelt reluctantly, half-prejudiced.
(And kissing, kissed the emblem of a creed.)
Then mourning women knelt; meek mouths they had,
(And kissed the Body of the Christ indeed.)
Young children came, with eager lips and glad.
(These kissed a silver doll, immensely bright.)
Then I, too, knelt before that acolyte.
Above the crucifix I bent my head:
The Christ was thin, and cold, and very dead:
And yet I bowed, yea, kissed – my lips did cling.
(I kissed the warm live hand that held the thing.)(5)

This poem obviously and unsurprisingly (for anyone familiar with Owens) is homoerotic. For this writing, I wish it were not—because I don’t want to confuse purposes here. It’s simply a poem I happen to know, and I quote it for one reason only. I did not participate in Maundy Thursday services because I believe or because it is “a structured analogy of reality expressed through quantitative thought,” or for any other faux intellectual reason. It’s a human connection into which I was born and from which I cannot escape, try as I might. It’s the “hand[s] that [hold] the thing[s]” of the ceremony.
(1) St. Augustine Confessions, 4.13.20. Quoted in: Knowles, Walter. “’Numbering’ Liturgy: An Augustinian Aesthetics of Liturgy.” Proceedings of the North American Academy for Liturgy (2009): 158-177.
(2) Knowles, ibid.  
(3) Knowles, ibid.
(4) Calivas, Alkiviadis C. “Healing of Communities and Persons through the Sacraments: A Theological Reflection.” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 51.1-4 (2006): 119-153.
(5). Wilfred Owen: The Complete Poems and Fragments, ed. Jon Stallworthy. London: Chatto & Windus, The Hogarth Press and OUP: 1983.


  1. It has been so long since I have been to a Maundy Thursday service. It is a moving ritual on the level of Greek plays I have seen performed.

    Oddly, one of my most delightful memories is of a service close to 40 years ago. Fr. John H.O. was washing the feet of those representing the disciples of Jesus. Zach was about 2 at the time and dressed in a one piece yellow jammie suit with a zipper running from the neck to one foot. I guess Zach figured if his Dad was up in front of the church he ought to be too. So, he squeezed between the men on the bench and unzipped and offered a foot to be washed too. John didn’t miss a beat.


  2. I think I understand. I am often communicated with by beauty, be it music, scupture, writing, painting, architecture and most frequently nature, be it stone, water, flora, fauna or human. I can not explain what I experience to anyone, but they can see the obvious joyous reaction in my countenance. I am glad my brain remains so mysterious.



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