Spiritual Formation and Learning the Cello

Jacqueline du Pre sculpture
A bronze sculpture of Jacqueline du Pré outside the Kensington Park Community Centre in Sydney, Australia. Photo: Sardaka on Wikimedia Commons
By on June 1, 2022

I don’t often read books more than once, though I feel I should. C. S. Lewis said it’s the mark of an educated person—though that’s not the only reason I want to do it! One that I did read twice recently is Rowan Williams’ Tokens of Trust, lectures on the Creed. I know, I know, that doesn’t sound too exciting, but Rowan Williams could make the telephone directory (remember those?) sound interesting.

One image he uses has stuck with me and continues to make me think. In the section on the Incarnation, he talks about Jacqueline du Pré, the brilliant mid-20th century cellist, whose career was tragically cut short by multiple sclerosis when she was only 28. She was particularly famous for her playing of Elgar’s Cello Concerto. (You can still see it on YouTube.) In fact, one of her teachers, Pablo Casals, vowed he would never play it again once he had heard her, simply because her performance was so perfect.

Rowan Williams compares du Pré’s playing to the incarnation of Jesus. He says: “Here is someone who is completely themselves, free and independent, and yet for this time the whole of their being, their life, their freedom, their skill, is taken up with this mysterious, different thing that is the work to be brought to life … Jesus is performing God’s love, God’s purpose, without a break, without a false note, without a stumble; yet he is never other than himself, with all that makes him distinctly human taken up with this creative work.”

The person who wrote the music and the person playing the cello are perfectly one. And yet, at the same time, she is totally herself. Nobody but Jacqueline du Pré plays the piece quite like that. You can see the parallel with the life of Jesus: as Williams says, “There is nothing in this performance that blocks out the composer.” This is part of what we mean when we say that Jesus was “fully God and fully human”.

My eight-year-old granddaughter has been learning the cello for two years—a quarter of her life.  Is she going to be a Jacqueline du Pré? Probably not. But she has a wonderful Suzuki teacher, who makes even the technical exercises fun. And a couple of times a year, parents and grandparents get to attend a public recital. Recently, we were treated to a solo performance of Purcell’s Rigadoon, which was, well, superb. Maybe I am wrong to say she could never be a Jacqueline du Pré. But I could be biased.

And so to spiritual formation. Let me start with a bold statement: the heart of spiritual formation is to be made like Jesus. Here it is, in black and white: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Ephesians 5:1-2). Frankly, we kid ourselves if we think the goal is anything less. And St. John goes so far as to promise that the goal is attainable—in the next world, at least—“What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

We tend to think of spiritual formation as learning different methods of prayer, or getting to know the Bible better. And—don’t misunderstand me—those things are good and necessary. I need to keep working on them myself. But those things are not what it’s all about. They are simply a means to an end. They are like the technical exercises—the scales, arpeggios, and whatnot—that are so hard (and often boring!) for musical beginners. Mastering them gives us the necessary mental and spiritual equipment with which to tackle some of the harder melodies of the Christian repertoire—compassion, forgiveness, generosity, tranquillity, risk-taking, and (dare I say it?) even things like evangelism. In other words, they help us towards Jesus-likeness.

We will never be the spiritual equivalent of the Jacqueline du Pré of the spiritual life. There was only one of those. But if we practise hard enough that we can manage Rigadoon, I think our heavenly Parent will be delighted and applaud wildly.

  • John Bowen is Professor Emeritus of Evangelism at Wycliffe College in Toronto, where he was also the Director of the Institute of Evangelism. Before that, he worked a campus evangelist for Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. For over thirty years, John has been a popular speaker, teacher, and preacher, on university campuses, in churches and in classrooms, and at conferences, across Canada and the USA. His most recent book is The Unfolding Gospel: How the Good News Makes Sense of Discipleship, Church, Mission, and Everything Else (Fortress 2021).

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