Nunc dimittis

In his book The Call, Os Guinness tells the following story of John Coltrane.

After one utterly extraordinary rendition of “A Love Supreme,” Coltrane stepped off the stage, put down his saxophone, and said simply “Nunc dimittis.” … Coltrane felt he could never play the piece more perfectly. If his whole life had been lived for that passionate thirty-two minute jazz prayer, it would have been worth it. He was ready to go.

Nunc dimittis is Latin for “Now dismiss.” These are the opening words of the Vulgate translation of the Song of Simeon, Luke 2:29–32. Simeon says he is ready to die because he has seen what he was waiting for, the promised Messiah.

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.

Coltrane’s story brings several things to mind. First, it is awe-inspiring to imagine an accomplishment so fulfilling that you would say “That was it. I’m ready to die.”

Next, it’s interesting to ponder Coltrane’s eclectic spirituality. I knew Christianity was part of his spiritual gumbo, but I was surprised to hear that he made a spontaneous reference to Latin liturgy.

Coltrane was canonized by the African Orthodox Church in 1982. Truth is stranger than fiction.

Finally, I was interested in the name Nunc dimittis itself. I hadn’t heard it before. (I’ve only been part of non-liturgical churches.) I thought the name might only be familiar to Catholics, being a Latin term. But an Episcopalian friend informed me that the Anglican mass preserves many Latin titles even though the liturgy itself is in English. I suppose Coltrane encountered this Anglican name via the Episcopalian influence on the African Methodist Episcopalian Zion Church.

Closely related post:

John Coltrane versus Kenny G

Less related posts:

Software sins of omission (Software and the Book of Common Prayer)
Doing good work with bad tools (Charlie Parker story)
Dave Brubeck mass (Mass composed by a jazz icon)

15 thoughts on “Nunc dimittis

  1. The Call presupposes the existence of God, calling into question its conclusions since God’s existence cannot be verified. Instead, I’d recommend The Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell, and The Art of Love by Erich Fromm. Both of these books offer useful advice on fulfillment w/o relying on God.

  2. In June 1996, I was privileged to join a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. One of the trips was to Bethlehem. In the Shepherd’s Field, our minister asked me to sing “O Holy Night.” What an odd setting – daylight in the middle of the summer … and yet what I remember most about my singing is nothing. I can’t tell you how it sounded, if I hit the correct notes or held them the correct length. What I can tell you with certainty is that when I was finished I felt God smile. What an incredible feeling that was! Although I’ve been asked to do so, I’ve never offered that piece again. Whatever came out then was acceptable to the Lord and that it as good as it gets. Way to go, John!

  3. The nunc dimittis has a two-fold meaning in the high liturgical Churches. In addition to being a reference to death, it is part of compline — the liturgical prayer which most immediately precedes sleep. It is a prayer, therefore, of completion.

    The medieval through pre-modern versions of the Latin prayers can be found here: http://divinumofficium.com/cgi-bin/horas/officium.pl

    (as an aside, the largest changes in the Divine Office in the past hundred years involved that same prayer — compline. In this case, the old far excedes the new (under “Night Prayer” here: http://divineoffice.org/), but that is decidedly an opinion)

  4. It is worth mentioning that the “African Orthodoc Church” was founded in 1921 by African-Americans from the Episcopal Church whi wanted a denomination of their own and has no connection with the historic Eastern Orthodox Faith — it is simply another form of Anglicanism.

  5. As a musician, I have only been in a performance situation three times when “it happened” on stage. What I mean isn’t quite that my band or chorus achieved perfection… but that we achieved a level of performance far beyond what seemed possible. Each was the kind of performance that is the most like standing in God’s throne room as is possible here on Earth. After each performance, I have felt that sense of utter completion. And hey – I’m even a (former) Episcopalian, so this post brings it all together for me. Nice one, John!

  6. I mentioned this in my book, Truth Decay. I asked Os where he found the reference, since he had not documented it, but he could not remember. However, knowing about Trane as I do, it has the ring of truth.

  7. Thanks. I have a copy of Truth Decay. I believe I read it near the time it was published in 2000. I’d forgotten that you’d included the Coltrane story. I should go back and reread your book.

  8. @JohnH

    Thanks for pointing that out. The Churches with Saints normally will only canonize their own. It did not make sense that Coltrane would receive such an honor. I also have not heard of any miracles which could be attributed to his intercession.

  9. Just wanted to mention that Lutherans do a Nunc Dimittis as well, in pretty much the same way as Catholics and Anglicans. The Divine Service holds somewhat closely to the forms of the Catholic Mass. You find fewer and fewer Lutheran churches that follow the traditional liturgy but it is quite beautiful. All five forms of Divine Service along with Matins, Compline, and other worship settings can be found in the Lutheran Service Book from Concordia Press.

  10. While I suppose it’s a shame you hadn’t encountered the Anglican settings of the Nunc Dimittis, at least you have soemthing to look forward to hearing. Probably my favorite is Sir Charles Villiers Stanford’s in G, though he also wrote at least two other settings (in C and A); George Dyson and Gustav Holst also wrote fine settings, not to mention the many great settings from the centuries earlier. (Thomas Tallis’s is quite fine, though not apparently up in a listenable version on YouTube, and of course William Byrd’s is superb, though my favorite is probably John Sheppard’s, a wonderful composer who has been largely forgotten today, alas. This is of course just to point to Brits, not necessarily Anglicans.) –And all this is, of course, in addition to the many fine settings by Catholic composers from other countries, and for that matter non-Catholic composers from other countries.

    Disclosure: I’m not religious, much less an Anglican (though my wife, Mongolian though she might be, is Episcopalian); it’s just that I love British composers. And choral music.

  11. I should add that the last setting I linked to, by Heinrich Schütz, was probably actually commissioned by his patron of several decades, Christoph Cornet, as his funeral music. (Rather, one of two settings of the German Nunc Dimittis that Schütz wrote for him.)

  12. I just stumbled onto your site at noon time and have read the above.

    It was yesterday evening I wrote what follows below and have copied it here. It is one piece — out of 2 x 30 = 60 Meditations — taken from “The Prince of Peace”. This one here is from the 2nd batch (12 out of 30) beginning around Christmas Day.

    All of You, keep well and may the Lord keep you safe. Pray for my family.
    Many Blessings,

    Bernhard Thamm
    Bremen, Germany

    + + +

    XII THE CANTICLE OF SIMEON

    “And [he] said : Now thou dost dismiss thy servant, O Lord, according to thy word, in peace; because my eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before thy people: a light to the revelation of the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel. And his father and mother were wondering at these things which were spoken concerning him” — Luke 2:25-28.

    1) This, then, is “the consolation of Israel” for which Simeon and his companions had been yearning; and the moment it comes, though it be represented only by a tiny Child lying in his arms, it is enough to make life no longer of value, enough to give him peace for all eternity. His Canticle is the last in the great trilogy. Mary had opened it with the Magnificat; Zachary had taken up Our Lady’s song and had developed part of it in the Benedictus; Simeon now carries on the thought of Zachary and dwells on the mercies of the Lord to the world. He begins with thanksgiving for the great grace granted to himself; echoing the words of Jacob at the recovery of Joseph: “Now shall I die with joy, because I have seen thy face, and leave thee alive”; and yet more those of the elder Tobias: “Now, O Lord, do with me according to Thy will, and command my spirit to be received in peace”. He had been permitted to see, not merely a consolation for himself, but “Thy
    salvation”, the “consolation of Israel”.

    2) Then he develops this “salvation”, and in a way that may well astonish us. Hitherto we have felt the Jews preoccupied with the thought of the Messias as being their special Redeemer; and we have felt all sympathy with their mind. But here on a sudden, from the most intense circle of the Jewish expectation, comes an outburst which proves that the prospect before them reached far beyond the children of Abraham; it extends to and includes the whole world. The Child is to be a light, not for the Jews only but for the enlightenment of all nations; on this account He is to be the glory of God’s people, Israel. This is the aspect of prophecy on which Simeon lays hold, that aspect which the less faithful Jews seem to have neglected, for while the latter clung to the Messias as their King, many prophets had foretold Him “as the desired of all nations” who “hath revealed His justice in the sight of the Gentiles”. In this sense, then, while Zachary looks to the fulfilment of the past, Simeon already opens the new era and looks to the fulfilment in the future.

    3) The sentence which follows is surely the sentence of Our Lady herself. Who else would have said of her that she “wondered at these things”? Who else would have given Joseph the first place? “And his father and mother were wondering at these things which were spoken concerning him”. At what did they wonder? The evidence of the Magnificat alone is enough to show that to Mary there was nothing very new in these words of Simeon; and the prophecy concerning herself had not yet been uttered. Is it not the wonder of every saint in every contemplative experiences in the ever deeper understanding of the truths of revelation? We know what is meant by Christ our Lord, but from time to time, in Communion, in prayer, in times of suffering, we seem to see, not merely to know. Then we, too, “marvel”; as perhaps did Our Lady at such times as this.

    Summary:

    1) Simeon’s consolation is enough to make their life and all that it contains, joy or sorrow, few or many days, of no account.

    2) His consolation extends not to his own people only, but to all the world.

    3) And the parents wondered, marvelled; what was the nature of their marvelling?

    + + + +

  13. I’ve enjoyed your thoughts and those who have commented. Simeon surely knew that from his perspective salvation as redemption had arrived, as had the promised literal kingdom and life eternal … All in Christ Jesus, The Lord.

Comments are closed.