Fr Billy Swan
Dear friends. In these days of the Opera Festival, the sound of music is to be heard on the streets of Wexford from the National Opera House, from pubs and other venues around town. Next year with the Fleadh Cheoil, there will be even more music on our streets and halls, entertaining thousands and lifting our souls and minds towards beauty and joy. Music is a way that God can reach us and draw us closer to Himself. Over the centuries, it was through the medium of music that the psalms were prayed, the Scriptures were proclaimed and God praised in the liturgy. Music was, and continues to be, a wonderful gift from God through which he can speak to us and uplift us in worship and praise.
From the Old Testament, 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). Therefore, in the liturgical tradition of Israel whose purpose was to draw believers into right praise and align hearts and minds to the divine life, music was an essential component. But how did this work?
It was through the medium of music that the Spirit of God acted and touched the lives of those who heard it. Two examples to illustrate. In his meeting with the kings of Israel and Judah, Elisha is asked by them for a prophetic word. Before he agreed, Elisha requested: “Now bring me someone who can play the lyre. And as the musician played, the hand of Yahweh came on him” (2 Kings 3:15). A second example is of David whom we think of as a soldier and king but rarely as a musician. In the first book of Samuel, we are told that “whenever the spirit from God came over Saul, David would take a harp and play; Saul would then be soothed; it would do him good, and the evil spirit would leave him” (1 Sam. 16:23). We see with both these examples how the Spirit of God moves and acts through the medium of music.
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. 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).
For the early Church father Athanasius (c. 296-373), because all creation was brought into being the divine Word, there was harmony between all things. He writes:
“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. By his decree and will he regulates them all to produce the beauty and harmony of a single, well-ordered universe. While remaining unchanged with his Father, he moves all creation by his unchanging nature, according to the Father’s will. To everything he gives existence and life in accordance with its nature, and so creates a wonderful and truly divine harmony” (St Athanasius, From a Discourse Against the Pagans).
For St Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-395), our life is stamped with the beauty of God’s thought. “The inner and the outer man are harmonised in a kind of music. The mind of Christ is the controlling influence that inspires us to moderation and goodness in our behaviour” (Treatise on Christian Perfection).
In the Middle Ages, St Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) understood the entire creation as a symphony of the Holy Spirit who is in himself joy and jubilation. She prayed: “To the Trinity be praise! God is music, God is life that nurtures every creature in its kind” (Symphonia 26). She then extended the analogy of music, describing the communion among all the saints as a “symphony of the blessed” (Scrivias, Vision 13).
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 faith in Him. Music is a great common denominator. Whether we are already committed believers or hardened sceptics, 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 and harmony. In the same way we might invite someone to “Look!” at a painting and admire its beauty, so we could give a gift of beautiful liturgical music and say “Listen!” as a way of drawing them closer to the beauty of the divine. We could describe this as “evangelization by stealth” – where the message and music combine, allowing the Spirit to touch the listener’s soul.
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 invites his audience across the ages, to tune into a new frequency, a new understanding and a new logic of love. 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 Christ’s mindset and away from their own.
For us in the family of the Church, the analogy of music also speaks effectively of promoting unity and harmony. That is why the Second Vatican Council spoke of music as “promoting unity of minds” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 112), based on the words of St Paul who asks the Church to “Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart” (Eph 5:19).
While each life produces a unique note, each of those notes unite in the Church to produce a beautiful hymn. 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 we be out of tune with the rest of the choir and so diminish the beauty of the song we sing. Indeed, our role in the whole theo-drama could be described as attuning ourselves to God’s purposes for us. That is why in The Lord of the Rings, Sam said of his adventure with Frodo: “I feel as if I was inside a song, if you take my meaning” (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Harper Collins, 1991, p. 342). This musical theme was employed by Tolkien in his work Silmarillion and by C. S. Lewis creation story in The Magician’s Nephew where God and his angels sing the world into being.
Another use of the analogy of music is to probe the meaning of suffering. For the British writer Caryll Houselander (1901-1954), the experience of human suffering hollows us out from within in a way that allows God’s Spirit to play music through the witness we give. She writes: “It is the emptiness like the hollow in the reed, the narrow riftless emptiness which can have only one destiny: to receive the piper’s breath and utter the song that is in his heart” (The Reed of God). Suffering is the painful process of becoming emptied and hollowed out by God so that a beauty is born, heard and seen.
To conclude. 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 our lives sing a new song of praise each day as we meet in the Church and 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.