The Strange Spirituality of Whitacre and Silvestri’s “The Sacred Veil”

I have long been a fan of Eric Whitacre’s music. In fact, it was the discovery of his virtual choirs that drove me to pursue music composition in high school, such that I chose that as my major in college. His music has an otherworldly quality at times and its capacity to move me deeply has never faded. His collaborations with renowned poet and lyricist Charles Anthony Silvestri are among his best known and celebrated works; titles such as Sleep, sister pieces Lux Aurumque and Nox Aurumque, Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine, the haunting Sainte-Chapelle, and the majestic Her Sacred Spirit Soars, are not only great choral works, but magnificent examples of Silvestri’s poetry in their own right.

When I heard that Whitacre and Silvestri were collaborating once more on an epic project, one that would dwarf all their previous collaborations, I immediately followed any and all developments I could. I remember listening to the premiere of movement 11, “You Rise, I Fall,” when the Eric Whitacre Singers put on a concert in St. Paul, Minnesota. There, Silvestri and Whitacre explained that that piece was part of a larger, multi-movement work called “The Sacred Veil.” I couldn’t wait. At last, when the time came for the premiere in Los Angeles in February of 2019, I paid the $37 for a cheap seat at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. It was the first time I’d had the chance to see Eric Whitacre conduct live and I couldn’t have been more excited.

“Powerful” does not even begin to describe the experience. Rapturous. Sensuous. Magnetic. Ethereal. I cried the entire time. Just to provide some background, the work chronicles the love story of Silvestri and his wife, Julie, her struggle to conceive children, the birth of their first child, and Julie’s battle with ovarian cancer, culminating in her death and the pain that followed. The story is told both in words of carefully constructed poetry by Silvestri, but also excerpts from journals and newsletters from Julie, and even the full text of Julie’s diagnosis. The words of the final movement, “Child of Wonder,” were written by Whitacre himself.

The work is, by all accounts, something of a secular requiem. But it is not entirely secular. No, there is a theology here, a metaphysics of birth and death, that cannot go unnoticed. I want to unpack that a bit and compare it to biblical Christianity.

Just by way of disclaimer, I can’t go over every little detail in this blog post, and my intention is not to isolate these elements from the work as a whole (though I think they are central to its overall theme and construction). Listen to the work yourself. Read the texts. The story of Tony and Julie Silvestri is beautifully told in living color. Movement 4, “Magnetic Poetry,” is one of my favorites for its imagery and unique structure, describing Julie’s frustration at not being able to conceive and yet her longing and hope that it will one day happen. In exploring the philosophy behind the work, I don’t want to ruin it completely. With that said, let’s look at it.

Whenever There is Birth or Death

As I understand it, Charles Anthony Silvestri was at one point a practicing Catholic, as was Julie, though perhaps she was the more devout of the two. Whitacre has gone on record saying that while he is not a Christian, he’s not an atheist either, instead claiming that he is an agnostic “in the truest sense of the word,” and that he is nevertheless a deeply spiritual person.

It is no surprise, then, to find in this deeply personal work an equally personal theology of life and death. From the opening of the very first movement, we are introduced to the concept of “the sacred veil” from which the work takes its name.

Whenever there is birth or death,
The sacred veil between the worlds
Grows thin and opens slightly up,
Just long enough for Love to slip,
Silent, either in or out
Of this our fragile, fleeting world,
Whence or whither a new home waits.
And our beloved ones draw near,
In rapt anticipation, or 
In weary gratitude, they stand;
Our loved ones stand so close, right here,
Just on the other side
Of eternity.

In his explanation of the concept, Silvestri noted that times of birth and death are very sacred, whenever someone enters or leaves this “fragile, fleeting world.” There is a sacred veil, a sort of mystical curtain between our world and the next, that grows very thin in those times, opening up just enough “for Love to slip, / Silent, either in or out.” Embedded in this concept are the ideas of afterlife and preexistence; note the words, “Whence or whither a new home waits.” Whether a new life is entering the world, or an old life is expiring and leaving the world, a new home waits for them. The imagery of loved ones standing by is especially poignant, whether “in rapt anticipation,” as at birth, or “in weary gratitude,” as at death.

From the opening of the work, we have established for us the entire theology undergirding it. Movement 5 is a wordless meditation on “whenever there is birth,” designed to tell the story of the birth of Tony and Julie’s first child. Movement 11 describes the moment of Julie’s death and Tony’s brokenness in its wake. And finally, movement 12 sends Julie off in a sort of benediction. Let’s look at it.

Child of Wonder

Child of wonder
Child of sky
Time to end your voyage
Time to die.

Silent slumber calls you
Dark and deep
Child of soft surrender
Child of sleep.
– – – – –
Child of sorrow
Child of rain
There is no tomorrow
No more pain.

Turn your silvered sail
Toward the light
Child of mourning
Child of night.
– – – – –
Child of iridescence
Child of dream
Stars and moons will guide you
Down the stream.

Stretched on ocean waves
Of endless foam
Welcome home my child
Welcome home.

This poem, written by Whitacre himself, encapsulates the heart of the message behind “The Sacred Veil.” Death, for Whitacre at least, is nothing more than a “silent slumber.” In death “there is no tomorrow / no more pain.” This is not quite the same as what some secularists would deem a cessation of existence, but more akin to the ancient idea of soul sleep, where your physical body dies while your soul continues in a sort of subdued and sleep-like state. Some theologies, like those of Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Seventh-Day Adventists, hold that the soul sleeps only until the final resurrection; here, there is no such indication of that idea, except perhaps in the final stanza. (Just in passing, Whitacre loves the word “iridescence,” I can tell.)

Now it may be said, “Jay, aren’t you taking this all a little too literally? It is poetry, after all.” Point well taken. But even in poetry, concepts are communicated that can and should be analyzed. Words mean things. I am, quite literally, taking Whitacre and Silvestri at their word that this is what they meant to communicate; hearing them talk about it before performances of the work has only reinforced these conclusions. There is a New Age/mystical philosophy hiding in plain sight in these words and I fear it reflects the religion of most Americans today. What does the Bible have to say in response?

Biblical Connections

The imagery of the “veil” is very important in biblical theology. In the tabernacle and later in the temple, there was a large veil separating the Holy of Holies, where God dwelt, from the outer portions where the priests ministered (see Exodus 26:31-35; Hebrews 9:3-4). The veil was a physical reminder that human beings and God could not dwell together because of sin. Sin, the evil within each and every one of us, separates us from God. We read in 1 John 1:5 that “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” Those living in darkness (as we all once did or still do) cannot have fellowship with him.

The best part is that in Christ, the veil has been removed. You remember in the account of Christ’s crucifixion, Matthew notes, “And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Matt. 27:50-51). This very symbolic action represents a very real spiritual reality, that in Christ those who were once afar off, alienated from God, may be brought near (see Ephesians 2:11ff). By believing in Jesus for our salvation, we can have fellowship with God once more.

What does this have to do with Silvestri and Whitacre’s sacred veil? There is some truth to it. The spiritual and physical worlds are very much coexistent. They exist together simultaneously. You remember the story in 2 Kings 6, when the armies of Israel are few in number against the might of Syria, and Elisha’s servant is dismayed at the state of things, what does Elisha say? “He said, ‘Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them'” (2 Kings 6:16). He then prays to God to open the eyes of his servant to see the reality of the situation; the text says, “So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (v. 17). So the spiritual realm is in some sense “veiled” from our eyes, but it is right here, close to us.

But that does not spill over into the realm of the afterlife. Those who pass from this earth do not remain on this earth as disembodied spirits. The soul that is saved by Jesus goes to heaven, while the rest are punished for their sins in hell. Even those places are merely temporary holding areas until the final judgment described for us in the last chapters of Revelation. Death is not a silent slumber, where there is no tomorrow or pain. No, for those outside of Christ, the pain is only just beginning.

So yes, there is a sense in which the sacred veil as a concept is biblical, but in the sense that Whitacre and Silvestri use it, I am not convinced. Perhaps I will add more to this post as I reflect further, but I think I’ve gone on long enough for now.

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