One of the eight principles of the ‘Word on Fire’ movement founded by Bishop Robert Barron is ‘Leading with Beauty’ – that everything we say and do in the name of mission should display the inherent beauty of Christ and so be attractive to all those who behold it. This principle is on glorious display in the newly produced ‘Word on Fire Bible’ where beautiful art illustrates the Word of God in visible form and is an extension to our senses of the written Word placed beside it.
This got me thinking of the multiple ways the Word of God can be communicated through means other than the written Word. I think here of sacred art, mosaics, iconography, frescoes, architecture and of course music. Over the centuries, it was through the medium of music that the psalms were prayed, the Scriptures proclaimed and God praised in the liturgy. Music was, and continues to be, a foundational gift from God through which he can speak to us and uplift our souls and bodies to Himself in worship and praise.
From the psalms, we know that musical instruments like lyres and harps were used in temple worship by the Jews. The communal exercise of singing was central to the praise of God’s people gathered in prayer: “I thank you Lord with all my heart; I sing praise to you” (Ps 34:1-3); “Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord…Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song” (Ps 95:1-2). For the believer, to “sing a new song” was to praise God for his salvation experienced by his people in new ways and in the present time (cf. Ps 33:3; Ps 96:1; Is 42:10).
Jesus would have been aware of this musical tradition and would have participated in it regularly in the synagogue and at Passover. At the end of the Last Supper, the Gospels of Matthew and Mark’s tell us that “when they (Jesus and the Apostles) had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives” (Matt 26:30; Mark 14:26).
This great musical tradition was carried forward into the early Church’s life of prayer and worship. Liturgical music had a quality and a power to attune people to the divine and touch them in ways that transcended words and reason. For example, in the West, St Augustine (354-430) famously wrote of the transforming effect of music on him:
“How I wept during your hymns and songs! I was deeply moved by the music of the sweet chants of your Church. The sounds flowed into my ears and the truth was distilled into my heart” (Confessions, 9, 6, 14).
In the East, St Ephrem the Syrian (306-373) was known as “the lyre of the Holy Spirit” – because of the holiness of his life that produced beautiful music by its harmony with the power of the Holy Spirit. St Athanasius (295-373) developed the analogy of musical harmony when he wrote: “Think of a musician tuning his lyre. By his skill he adjusts high notes to low and intermediate notes to the rest, producing a series of harmonies. So too the wisdom of God holds the world like a lyre and joins things in the air to those on earth, and things in heaven to those in the air, and brings each part into harmony with the whole” (Discourse Against the Pagans).
For St Gregory of Nyssa (335-395), “Our life is stamped with the beauty of his (Christ’s) thought. The inner and the outer person are harmonized in a kind of music” (A Treatise on Christian Perfection).
It is important to note how Augustine, Ephrem and Gregory were all familiar with the monastic Tradition in the Church that was beginning to flourish and grow where chanting of the psalms became a daily discipline.
Fast forward to the early twentieth century when a young French girl who was an accomplished pianist began to grow in the spiritual life as a Carmelite sister. For St Elizabeth of the Trinity (1880-1906): “A praise of glory is a soul of silence that remains like a lyre under the mysterious touch of the Holy Spirit so that he may draw from it divine harmonies; it knows that suffering is a string that produces still more beautiful sounds” (Heaven in Faith). Later, St Elizabeth made the beautiful prayer that there be harmony between the dynamics of her soul and the soul of Christ: “Identify my soul with all the movements of your soul” (Prayer to the Trinity).
As we seek ways to evangelize today, these examples from Scripture and the saints provide inspiration. They take us back to the power of the Word of God, carried by music, to reach people and move them towards God and faith in Him. Music is a great common denominator. Whether we are already committed believers or hardened skeptics, beautiful music has the power to deepen our communion with God or at least open us up to a greater religious and spiritual sensibility. Music pulls heart strings.
Leading people along the way of beautiful music towards the faith is also more winsome for it presents the Gospel in the language of attunement, harmony and the combination of voices and lives in the Church to create a beautiful song. For many, evangelization that leads with the concept of conforming to Gospel and Church values, norms and morals, can be off-putting for it threatens freedom and tells me that I need to change. While this might be true, a better route of attraction might come from the language of music.
So for example, we might describe the work of Jesus as attuning our lives with his. Because of sin, each of us are out of tune to a greater or lesser extent with God. The work of the Holy Spirit is to move us back into tune and onto God’s wavelength. We could say that this is what Jesus was trying to do by teaching parables such as the Prodigal Son. He was inviting his audience across the ages, to tune into a new frequency, a new wisdom, a new understanding, a new logic of love and mercy that comes right from the heart of God. When St Paul urges the Philippian Christians to have “the same mindset as Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5), he is urging them to attune themselves to his mindset and away from their own.
For us in the family of the Church, the metaphor of music also speaks effectively of the collective song we sing. While each of our lives can be described as “lyres of the Holy Spirit” that produce notes, each of those notes unite in the Church to produce a beautiful hymn from the harmony of those notes. If the Church is a type of choir then the participation of each of us is crucial. As each of us are called to holiness, so each of us are called to attune our lives anew to the life of God lest our voice be out of tune with the rest of the choir and so diminish the beauty of the song we sing.
Beethoven once said that music can change the world. If this is true then it begins with a change in me, caused by God’s grace that draws me continually towards greater harmony with the movements of love, truth and mercy within the Holy Trinity. May my life and yours sing a new song of praise each day and as we meet in the Church may the hymn produced by the harmony of our voices and lives, attract many along the way of beauty, towards attunement with the God of beauty and the enchantment that leads to faith.