Exploring Menuhin and May: insights from music and psychotherapy

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Now officially retired, I'm the Director of a volunteer church outreach: Trinity-at-Waiake  eLearning Centre. Our website and ePortfolio is kiwiconnexion.nz for lifelong learning and spirituality, creating an online community of best practice and resourcing for professional development, with an emphasis on Methodism. Read more

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Menhuin, Music, and Courageous Discipleship

Yehudi Menuhin, one of the greatest musicians of this century, said this about his early childhood: “In my case I owe much to the fact that my parents are Russian-Jewish. My father came from the Chassidic sect, people who loved dancing and singing and playing the violin; my mother also loved music. They took me to concerts when I was a small child and intuitively I reached out for an instrument that I sensed would be able to express my feelings.”

So, this enormous musical talent had its origins, in childhood. It began with an unspoken desire to find a way of expressing himself. It is a couple of years since I first read these interviews with Menuhin but that particular thought seemed very important and has always remained with me. This is because what I see time and again in people is precisely this innate desire to express the inexpressible, to connect with what is deepest and truest in themselves. I also see, perhaps because of the searing, blistering honesty of the Gospel which searches us daily, that the world contrives to stop it from happening. More about this opposition in a moment.

In the interim, let’s just reflect for a moment further on Menuhin’s childhood conviction that he had found a way to express his feelings. This way was the violin, it was the medium by which he began to express the inexpressible. The medium differs for each person, and whether they are geniuses or not somehow they will find what that medium is. We do not need enormous talent or genius to achieve this expression, but we do need honesty and determination. A family life well lived might be what it is. Or a solitary life. Or painting or trout fishing or sailing. It is the act of being taken out of one’s imprisoning ego, that is the key step. It is to feel so at one with the medium or the activity that it lives through you rather than you living through it.

A little later on in the interview Menuhin revealed that he was interested in a thousand things, but didn’t believe he would be any good at any thing except music and possibly, possibly, he could have been - and I find this delicious - he could have been a good pastor, save that parish work would be too confining compared to where the adventure of music took him.

The connection between music and faith was that both are essentially aspects of “the human condition, the human body, the human mind, the human spirit”. Now all this I dearly love. Parish work is mind-numbingly slow at times, but at its deepest and truest level it can be a moving testimony because the pastor or minister sees in ordinary people the extraordinary and remarkable power of the human spirit to overcome impossible odds. You have no idea what a privilege it is for people like me to be alongside of those who are set free by the power of God to explore the spectrum of human love and anguish. As Menuhin guessed it can go far beyond the realms of music.

The entire Menhuin interviews seem to me to echo over and over a multiplicity of idea inherent in the parable of the sower. It is this. Where the seed is liberally sown, and the conditions are right, then the crop will be prodigious.

In the prodigious endeavour which is humanity in all its diversity, there is a striving for expressing the inexpressible. This is the essence of the human spirit. So that the musician sees into the heart of the priest or pastor, and pastor sees into the mind of the scientist, and the teacher sees into the heart of the child, and the arts and crafts and trades illuminate one another, and so on through the great chain of being and through the events of the great chain of being, so that each and every member of a society becomes aware of first their dependence, then their independence and finally their interdependence. Thus society draws strength from the individual and the individual draws upon the whole of society.

But the leaders of New Zealand society today appear to hate and loathe the fact of interdependence. I am not the slightest bit interested in the grubby politics of greed, but it seems to me to represent a particularly inhuman situation when the maximum benefits of the recent tax cuts will be gained by men earning in excess of $1 million dollars per annum. I might be naive but I really would have thought they did not need it.

But, let’s face the facts, churches have really lost their way in recent decades, every bit as much as our captains of privatisation and for precisely the same set of reasons. Religion has become a private affair, a matter between the individual and his God. It has moved out of the public arena. And as far as I can see the chief reason it has done so is because of a loss of nerve. It has failed to adequately prepare the soil by which its existing members may grow in faith and strength of character as well as allowing new members to do likewise. Why have we not paid sufficient attention to preparing the ground, exercising the heart and mind? I think the failure is even more significant: the Church has not been careful in its preparation because it has merely reflected the same lack of deep preparation that is endemic throughout western culture.

Dr. Rollo May who is amongst the most celebrated of American psychologists of the century had this rather perceptive comment to make on this very subject. An interviewer said to him, “Much of our modern culture seems to be an attempt to cope with a fundamental anxiety by diversions and what you have called banal pleasures”.

To which May answered, “Well you have just put your finger on the most significant aspect of modern society. We try to avoid anxiety by getting rich, by making $100,000 by the time we are 21, by becoming millionaires. Now, none of those things lead to the joy, the creativity that I am talking about. One can own the world and still be without the inner sense of pleasure, of joy, of courage, of creation.”

That is not bad for the founder of the Association of Humanistic Psychology - he might have lifted straight off the pages of the Bible - what profits a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?

Dr. May went to argue that in fact we are witnesses to the end of an age. He says that you can always define the end of an age by charting the increasing numbers of psychotherapists. “Almost every other person in California is a psychotherapist. This always happens when an age is dying.” Now, you might ask what is the evidence for this slur on psychotherapists? Well, Dr May makes his case on historical grounds.

For example, when the Greek civilisation began to flourish in the 7th and 6th centuries BCE, society was consumed by such questions as what is truth, what is justice, what is goodness, what is beauty? But by the 2nd century BC when the Greeks had since been overrun by the Romans, some of the Greek philosophers had transmuted themselves into psychotherapists. Now the chief subject of their philosophical conversation was how do we get by in life with as little pain or discomfort as possible? How do we maximise our security and minimise our risk? Apparently there was less reference in this period to the high ideals that first forged the intellectual and emotional heart of ancient Greece.

Dr May then looks at the Renaissance, when all Europe blossomed with a rediscovery of the learning of antiquity and helped enormously by Islamic culture. What were the burning issues of the day? Once again the same topics arise with the dawn of the new era: what is true, what is just, what is good, and most significant, what or who is God. There are no psychotherapists or their equivalents. The deepest human needs for security and love and affection are consummated by faith and religion, by art and by beauty and by music. All things are possible in the new era, but in order to achieve them, risk is maximised and security minimised. Incidentally, in case you think I’m using the terms of the money market here, I should just point out that minimising and maximising quantities is essentially mathematical and began to receive an impetus towards the calculus among the 13th century monks of Merton School. The Business Roundtable owes more to religion than religion does to it.

To return to Rollo May, he drives the point home about the dis-ease of increasing psychotherapy in these words: “But at the end of an age - every age down through history has done the same - every other person becomes a therapist, because there are no ways of ministering to people in need and they form long lines to the psychotherapist’s office. I think it is a sign of the decadence of the age, rather than a sign of our great intelligence.”

Now I am pretty sceptical of Dr May’s assertions. He may be right in terms of psychology, but he isn’t right in terms of history. The mandate of the Church hasn’t ever changed: truth, beauty and goodness are not concepts that originated with the Greek philosophers alone. I think the essential seeds are there in every day of every age and in most cultures as well. 

When successfully put before the people of a society it can do extraordinary things. To take one example, the Wesleyan revolution in 18th century Britain was an extraordinary phenomenon, not the least because John Wesley was unafraid to serve the cause of the Gospel with all his genius for organisation and integration of knowledge from many different fields. Nor was he afraid to harness with humility his Oxford education to the cause of the Gospel. The effect was, in historic terms, quite staggering. The clapped out Anglican Church, already a creaking, groaning, and altogether irrelevant piece of ecclesiastical machinery, was transformed. The Wesleyan revolution was not just a religious revival as such, but signalled a changed way of looking at economic life. 

A second, and for me, even more potent example of the powers of organisation unleashed for good are found in Bonhoeffer’s Confessing Church in Germany, or Solzenitsyn’s Russian orthodoxy standing against the demonic hatred of Stalin. The people involved with these movements were people of courage and daring, who knew the inexpressible desire for God would take them to the absolute limits.

This is all part of the birthright, the wider Christian tradition. To turn one’s back on it, like Esau, is to me quite incomprehensible. I will never be a brilliant violinist like Menuhin, or a literary genius like Solzenitsyn or a pastor of courage like Bonhoeffer nor a man for the times like Wesley, and I suppose none of you will. But we are enriched because each of them has expressed the inexpressible, and in our limited way we are given the opportunity to try also. I have the feeling that somehow, we are being shaped for this purpose. What do you think?


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