A typical crowd of tourists, seniors, and schoolchildren on field trips was mulling around the large lobby of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. when a young man, wearing full military dress and carrying a cello, walked toward a chair curiously placed in the center of the large room and sat down. He took up his bow in one hand, stretched his other arm to adjust the sleeve, and began playing with calm, expert finesse.
After the opening measures, another soldier musician approached with a standup bass and joined in. A small riser was brought out, and a graying maestro removed his overcoat and accepted the conductor’s baton from an assistant with a cordial salute. An oboe came in with the melody, followed by strings, brass, clarinets, flutes, even a harp.
Mothers holding children swayed with the music. Faces broke into smiles and wonder. A few people started recording the flash concert on their cell phones.
The crowd has stopped mulling around; the rockets, space capsules and bi-plane hanging from the ceiling are forgotten. “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” composed by the great Johann Sebastian Bach and performed by the US Air Force Band under the direction of Colonel Larry H. Lang, Commander and Conductor, is enough to render these museum artifacts, sophisticated as they were in their time, as just so much scrap metal.
Then come the vocals:
Jesu, joy of man’s desiring,
Holy wisdom, love most bright …
If you look carefully, you can see a few museum-goers wiping away tears while other faces appear close to tears. In fact, you may find yourself reaching for a tissue as you watch.
Now why is this? Why is it that, all those surrounding technological accomplishments notwithstanding, this music has the power to slip right past the intellect and, drawing from unseen wells of emotion we didn’t even know were there, summon the heart to come forth and behold something greater?
Or to phrase the question in the language of science, what is the explanation for this universal phenomenon we call joy? Or rapture? Hold that thought.
Several years ago, I had an interesting conversation with an atheist named Ken. A medical doctor, Ken is very intelligent and articulate. His mother had passed on a few weeks prior, and the conversation turned to his reaction to it. “I was walking down the street Tuesday,” Ken said, “by an antique shop. And I had looked for a particular kind of double-striped cranberry glass that my mother collects. It’s very rare. And every time I go by this antique shop I look to see if they’ve got any in the window. I’ve never seen it. And I realized as I walked by that I never really need to look for that … ” and here his voice broke away. An emotional wave had struck him, seemingly, out of nowhere, and he couldn’t finish the sentence, I never need to look for double-striped cranberry glass again…
He changed the subject and soon afterward ended the conversation. It made me want to cry for him—not so much for the loss of his mother, but for the loss of his ability to grieve the loss. He feels something very deeply, but he’s cut himself off from both the source and satisfaction of that longing. Ken has rejected belief in God for lack of evidence, yet he misses the evidence that springs from the emotional wells of his very soul.
C.S. Lewis wrote about the innate desire for something beyond. That desire is also a form of nascent knowledge. “Most people, if they had really learned to look in their hearts, would know that they do want, and acutely, something that cannot be had in this world.” The human soul was made to enjoy some objects that are “never fully given – nay, cannot even be imagined as given – in our present mode of subjective and spatio-temporal experience.” He called it joy; he also called it longing. A literary critic, he even at times called it Romanticism. This desire, Lewis wrote, is distinct from others in that it is itself desirable. “To have it is, by definition, a want: to want it, we find, is to have it.”
To want to have what? Look at the rest of the words of the first stanza of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” penned by Robert Bridges to be sung to the masterpiece:
Drawn by Thee, our souls aspiring,
Soar to uncreated light.
Souls aspiring to do what? To soar to uncreated light.
To rise up to God, to be united, or re-united, with our Maker. Why is Ken moved at the remembrance of his mother? Because God made both him and his mother for eternal relationship, and those relational bonds transcend death. Why are museum-goers moved by beautiful music? Why are we moved by beautiful music? Because God himself is beautiful, and he made us to dwell with him in glory and beauty. It’s part of the created order. We long for it, and we know it.
The tears tell us so.