Wednesday, May 28, 2014

“The octaves of human experience”

It is in the Imagination that language and the Muses are born from Memory in the house of tradition. The first lesson of our revised ‘Trivium’ is therefore the vital importance of crafts, drama and dance, poetry and storytelling, as a foundation for independent and critical thought. Through doing and making, through poesis, the house of the soul is built. The grammar of language, however, rests on a deeper foundation still. It rests on music. Music is the wordless language on which poetry—the purest and most concentrated form of speech—is built. Poetry is made of images, similes, metaphors, analogies; but what holds these elements together and makes them live is fundamentally musical in nature.

In music we glimpse the grammar of creation itself, from the harmony of the planetary and subatomic spheres to the octaves of human experience and the cycles of growth in plants and animals. Modern writers as varied as Schopenhauer and Tolkien have seen the world as a kind of ‘embodied music,’ and of course the notion is ubiquitous among the ancients. Music in turn is a play of mathematics, coherent patterns of number and shape in time and space, expressed in rhythm and timbre, tone and pitch. It is the closest most of us get to seeing and feeling the beauty of mathematics.

~ Beauty in the Word, by Stratford Caldecott, pages 57-58

That phrase, “the octaves of human experience” jumped out at me, and of course at first I thought of the musical octave—do, re, mi, and so on. But then I remember that there are dates on the Church calendar that are called Octaves, and I wonder if this is what he was referring to.

The Church year begins with the First Sunday in Advent. The first octave day on the calendar is January the 1st, “The Circumcision of Christ and Octave Day of the Nativity of Our Lord,” which means it’s the eighth day after his birth.

Another octave, though it isn’t labeled this way on the calendar, is Holy Week, from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday—eight days.

Our church doesn’t do anything in particular to observe most of these, so I haven’t paid them much attention, but our calendar shows that there are several more octaves. The next one begins on Ascension day (which is tomorrow, by the way—this year May the 29th is the fortieth day after the Resurrection) and runs through the following Thursday (Ascension is always on a Thursday). Corpus Christi is June 19 and its Octave Day is June 26. There’s an octave for the Nativity of John the Baptist (beginning on June 24), Saints Peter and Paul (June 29), the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary (August 15) and of her Nativity (September 8). The last octave on my church’s calendar begins with All Saints’ Day (November 1).

If we lived in a time and place where Morning Prayers were offered every day at church and all the Days of Obligation were kept I’m sure we would feel these rhythms.

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I keep re-reading this passage.  There are several other things that fascinate me, especially those last two sentences:

“Music in turn is a play of mathematics, coherent patterns of number and shape in time and space, expressed in rhythm and timbre, tone and pitch. It is the closest most of us get to seeing and feeling the beauty of mathematics.”

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Cindy has been blogging through Beauty in the Word at Ordo Amoris.  Be sure to read all her posts!


  1. Laura K. left this comment on my Facebook link to this article and gave me permission to repost it here:

    "That's a beautiful passage. I think it goes back farther than the Church calendar or human experience. Because he mentioned creation, and the "grammar of creation itself," he might be referring to the "eighth day" kind of theology that was emphasized in the early church. Baptismal fonts (and even baptismal rooms) used to have eight sides to remind the baptized that Jesus issued a new creation and that we were new creatures under a new (perfected) order . Augustine puts a big emphasis on the order of all creation and the order in salvation history from the beginning of time to the end of time. Bonaventure expounded on Augustine in his allegorical treatment of the 6 days of creation as a pattern for our soul's ascent to God. Everything that is created (all our human experience) is based on God's own perfect order as shown to us in Genesis.

    "So all this reminded me of a bookseller that I'd plumb forgotten about, "Eighth Day Books." You probably already know about them. I need to revisit their catalog, myself. "


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