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OLD AND NEW: THE BEGINNING IS THE END
October 8, 2007
 
My visitor settled back on the sofa and sighed contentedly. Her spiritual life has been rich this month, and she is grateful for it. I went to church yesterday, she said, and I realized how much I love old things. The liturgy, you know -- I love that it's so old.

So do I. The Codex Callixtinus is old -- 12th century. As I write, I'm listening to music that has been preserved in it. It contains some of the oldest polyphonic music notation that survives in ink on parchment. The interplay of choral voices would become a lot more complicated in a very short time; knowing what was ahead, it is a profound thing to hear these first ventures toward a complexity that would grow and grow as the centuries passed.

Moving and exciting. I love its age. But if you go to Santiago de Compostela, you can read a page of that music written when it was new, when it was the very latest thing in music. The people who heard it then had never heard anything like it before. They must have been thunderstruck.

The Codex is kept at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, and has been for centuries, but it wasn't written there. It was written in France, through which pilgrims had to pass on their way to Spain; among the things it contains is a triumphal tale of how Charlemagne was instructed by St. James in a vision to conquer Spain and chase the Moors away, so people could come and visit his grave (how the apostle James of Jerusalem happened to end up buried in northern Spain is definitely a story for another day).

Charlemagne didn't have to be asked twice. Santiago de Compostela became one of the most popular pilgrim destinations in medieval Europe -- only Jerusalem and Rome saw more pilgrims. So Codex Calixtinus is a travel guide; it's meant to be consulted on the way to the saint. Besides the music that makes it famous, it contains travel directions, descriptions of interesting places to see along the way, stories about the things pilgrims will experience once they get there, copies of sermons about St. James to keep the pilgrims inspired on the long journey. It's a medieval Michelin guide.

I close my eyes and I can see them: riding on horseback or in carriages, their servants walking. Stopping along the way at an inn, where they eat and drink heartily and then turn in early. Or maybe they don't turn in so early, not all of them; maybe they sit up late by the fire and tell stories. Maybe they sing some of the songs I'm listening to right this minute. Maybe their voices hang in the air, still.

In the domain of God, there is no such thing as time: the beginning and the end are the same. "Old" and "new" are our categories; they are not those of heaven. So, yes; the voices of those first singers, trying to make sense of this complicated new music, do still sound, linger in the air like the long ground notes of these ancient songs, while our descant trips and skips above them, for now. So yes; those long dead still live among us, in another way, a way we sense, sometimes, but will one day know, because we will be living that way, too.
Copyright © 2018 Barbara Crafton
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