The first thing a flute like my shakuhachi needs to make a sound is space: the empty space inside. Whether a drum, a piano, a guitar, a bell, or even the human voice, there has to be a hollow space in any instrument for the sound to resonate around and out of. If I try to blow or tap or pluck or sing into a solid block, no sound will come out.
The second thing the flute needs to make a sound is shape. Different shapes will make different sounds. A shakuhachi will make a different sound from a French horn. So, the second thing to make a sound is the shape which gives form to the empty space and the sound it makes.
The third thing the flute needs to make a sound is breath: just the right amount of air flowing through it. So, empty space, shape and breath: take any of those three things away, and the flute won’t make a sound.
But to make a sound, there is one more thing that we need first, before any of those other three things; because just any space, any random shape, any gust of air won’t do. The space and shape have to be designed; the breath has to be regulated by movements of the body and lips. In other words, if you want to get a specific sound rather than just any old noise, there has to be intent. There has to be a desire to make a certain kind of sound. There has to be a willing mind: and the sound you want to make exists in your mind before it comes out of the flute.
Why should anything exist at all, rather than nothing? In Christian understanding, it is the Word or Wisdom of God which God has given, and still keeps giving, form or shape to the creation he imagines and wills; and it is the Spirit of God which breathes life into the creation, in all its diversity of notes and harmonies.
It’s no coincidence that we talk about angels, those agents of the divine will, as forming ‘choirs.’ The universe, both spiritual and physical, is all part of the song of God, and we can learn the words and join in, well or badly, by looking to the Word Incarnate, Jesus Christ. But there if we want to be instruments in this cosmic orchestra, there is still one ingredient missing: breath.
Today is Pentecost, fifty days after Easter. This is the day when Jesus’ Apostles experienced the Holy Spirit which Christ had promised, the same Holy Spirit which breathes over the void in Creation. By being conceived as the child Jesus in the Virgin Mary’s empty womb, the Word or Wisdom of God, who gives form or shape to the universe, had emptied itself of all glory and come to dwell among us. Thirty-three years later, this same Jesus, the incarnate Word of God, had risen to new life from an empty tomb. The Spirit had breathed through the emptiness of void, womb and tomb; the sound was given form by the shape of the life Christ lived and the Cross he died on. Now it was time for a new inflation of that vital breath.
And so it came to the Apostles, locked in their upper room in Jerusalem; it came like wind, and like flames of fire licking around their heads, a shape mirrored still today in the mitre hats of the bishops ordained to keep that flame alive today. The Apostles went out and told everyone what had happened, and it is written that all the people around, people from all over the known world, with all their diverse languages, could understand what the Apostles were saying as though they were speaking the listeners’ own language. For all their difference, it is as though for that moment, with the breath of the Spirit, the whole world was singing one song.
Out of nothing but love, God as Father has given us existence, which we could not gain for ourselves. God as Word and Son has given us the pattern on which to shape our lives so that we, in all our diversity, might join the harmony of heaven. God as Spirit gives us the grace to receive the fruits of that harmony, which is existence in eternity, unbounded by time or space.
And he has given us, through the Apostles and the bishops who continue to teach the Catholic faith, the means of receiving that Spirit: the Holy Eucharist, in which the spirit enters matter and the food of mortals becomes the bread of angels who thereby lift us up with them to feast and sing in glory.