Ben Howard's Beatific Vision

Posted by Francesca Patti on Nov 15, 2019 7:07:00 AM
Francesca Patti

Patti Ben Howard title


“I Will Be Blessed” by singer-songwriter Ben Howard demonstrates art’s dexterity at communicating the sacred through honest, human expression. In this case, Howard chooses to start with the last things. From the perspective of one dying, his lyrics speak directly to universal desires and imaginings. It is out of this dark beginning that the song resounds, progressing in an upward movement that guides listeners to contemplate the invisible graces at hand. Death becomes an entry point, giving way to the song’s core theme: holy blessedness. Faced with finitude, we are provoked to seek the infinite, the Word Made Flesh and the flesh made blessed. 

From the song’s first lines, Howard keys us in to the sacred by his direct treatment of the human experience. He wastes no breath over trifling preoccupations, like which of his successes, epitaph attributes, or wise words people will remember once he’s gone. Rather, he cuts to the essential relationality of his life, asking “who do you love the most / Who you gonna call before you die.” Howard thus underscores the tension all mortal beings face as they try to love within the enclosing bounds of time. Does love, too, ultimately bow to death, or is there a guarantee for a love made meaningful in its endurance to the end . . . and beyond? Musing over whom he wants near “when the world comes to gather [him] in,” he hopes for the presence of this significant sort of love in his final hour—not as a concluding comfort, but as the verification of a devotion that has persisted and carried him to the end.  

Presumably, Howard’s lyrics refer to romantic beloveds, family members, or friends. And while a Christian listener may be tempted to rewrite the song’s human companionship into an analogy for one’s direct encounter with God, such an appropriation would only make the love abstract and meaningless. Instead, it is better to preserve the human nature of the relationship because it is precisely human love that Jesus Christ sanctified in the Incarnation. Having totally assumed humanity, Christ transfigures our relationships into new, creative solidarity with outpouring love that persists to the end. He achieved this once for all so that, in his love, we can build God’s Kingdom on earth.

The language of blessedness in the second half of the song ties the human experience to the attainment of the Beatific Vision. Howard’s lyrics suggest that earthly happiness is not negligible—something to hold you over until you reach the next world. Rather, the happiness of human love leads into the eternal happiness in paradise: “Oh if you're there / I will be blessed / I will be blessed.” We are reminded that salvation in the end does not come as a great leap from the natural to the supernatural; rather, it is instituted through the epic marriage of the two when divine love descends to meet our hearts raised at the sacrificial altar. As Tim O’Malley states in Divine Blessing, “It’s not we who lift up ourselves to God but heaven that comes to dwell among us as we join our voices with the divine praise of the city of God” (41). 

Insistently repeating the lines, “Oh hey heaven is the place we know / Heaven is the arms that hold us / Long before we go,” the song furthers this vision of building heaven on earth with a reassurance of familiarity. “Heaven is a place we know.” That is, Beatitude is not a foreign concept, but instead that which is most tangible and familiar. It is our deepest, holiest longings fulfilled. It is familial, it is communal. In a word, it is sacramental. It begins with the baptismal call “to be a ‘blessing’ and to bless,” and it presses on to fulfillment in Holy Communion (CCC, §1669; Habakkuk 2:3). Beatitude looks like the Body of Christ—our families, friendships, and the Church restored to their perfect form. It looks, sounds, smells, feels, and tastes like reconciliation between friends, shared meals, healed wounds, and care for the marginalized. It is Love blessed, broken, and shared to the end. It is the assurance that “for [God’s] faithful [people] . . . life is changed, not ended” (Preface I for the Dead). Though we are of dust and to dust we shall return, even our ultimate mortification will become yet another sign of blessing, a paschal promise.

Topics: Culture, death, All Souls, music, Ben Howard

Living and Handing on the Faith

The McGrath Institute Blog helps Catholics live and hand on their faith in Jesus Christ, especially in the family, home and parish, and cultivates and inspires everyday leaders to live out the fullness and richness of their faith in the simple, little ways that make up Church life.

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